Last Wednesday, following up on the two-hour video call on December 7 between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Foreign Ministry gave the U.S. a draft treaty between the U.S. and Russia on security guarantees and a draft agreement on measures to ensure the security of Russia and the member states of NATO. The draft agreement was, of course, also delivered to NATO. The texts were made public on Friday and yesterday the U.S. and NATO signaled that talks are likely to open in January.
The Biden-Putin call was prompted by the recent build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine. Last spring, as the U.S. and its NATO allies began their large-scale DEFENDER-Europe 21 joint exercise, Russia moved roughly 100,000 troops plus equipment to territory immediately adjacent to eastern Ukraine, a substantial portion of which has been controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists. After the NATO exercise concluded, most of the Russian troops were withdrawn but much of their equipment was left in place—in effect, forward-positioned for possible future use. In September, Russia and Belarus began Zapad-2021, their large-scale joint military exercise that takes place every four years and that, according to the Russian ministry of defense, this year involved 200,000 Russian troops plus tanks and other armored equipment. After the exercise concluded, a significant number of the Russian troops were deployed in territory to the north and east of Ukraine as well as in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. The Ukrainian government has estimated that more than 100,000 troops, of which more than 90,000 are ground troops, have been re-deployed to Russian territory adjacent to northern and eastern Ukraine and to Crimea.
Why so many Russian troops have been positioned in territory immediately adjacent to Ukraine has been the subject of considerable speculation. One plausible reason for the build-up, of course, is that Russia is alarmed that Ukraine, benefitting from the military advisers, equipment, and funding the U.S. and other NATO countries have provided recently, may move militarily against the pro-Russia separatists who control substantial portions of eastern Ukraine and wants to be able to quickly thwart any such effort. The deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops along with tanks and other equipment sends an obvious message to Ukraine—and to NATO: Any effort by Ukraine to reclaim the territory in eastern Ukraine now controlled by the separatists will be met with overwhelming force and, quite possibly, an incursion that extends beyond the boundaries of the territory now controlled by the separatists.
But there is also another more geostrategic reason for the Russian build-up. It is one that Putin discussed in considerable detail in his long article entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” published in July; his speech on November 18 at the expanded meeting of the Foreign Ministry Board; a press conference after the December 7 video conference; and, most recently and most extensively, his speech yesterday at the expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board. The message in all of them is clear: A Ukraine that is aligned geopolitically and militarily with NATO would seriously threaten Russia’s security.
In their video conference, Biden and Putin spoke for two hours about the build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine, Putin explaining the rationale and Biden warning about the possible consequences of their use. The White House subsequently said, “President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation. President Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy. The two presidents tasked their teams to follow up, and the U.S. will do so in close coordination with allies and partners.” The Kremlin released a longer statement that, among other things, attributed responsibility for the current situation to NATO rather than to Russia, saying that NATO “is making dangerous efforts to conquer Ukrainian territory.” The statement also gave a bit more information about the desired outcome of the follow-up talks. It said Russia “is seriously interested in receiving reliable, legally binding guarantees ruling out the eastward expansion of NATO” and the deployment of “weapons systems posing a threat to Russia in close proximity” to it. The Kremlin statement also said Biden and Putin had “agreed to task their representatives with entering into detailed consultations on these sensitive issues.”
Last Wednesday in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov gave U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried the draft U.S.-Russia treaty and draft agreement between Russia and the NATO member states. She subsequently met with NATO officials in Brussels. Russia published both documents last Friday. The draft U.S.-Russia treaty is three pages in length and consists of eight articles. The key articles are 1 and 3-7. Article 1 states in part the Parties “shall not undertake actions nor participate in or support activities that affect the security of the other Party; shall not implement security measures adopted by each Party individually or in the framework of an international organization, military alliance or coalition that could undermine core security interests of the other Party.” Article 3 states “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.” Article 4 states, “The U.S. shall undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of NATO and deny accession to the Alliance to the States of the former USSR. The U.S. shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former USSR that are not members of NATO, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.” Article 5 states, “The Parties shall refrain from deploying their armed forces and armaments, including in the framework of international organizations, military alliances or coalitions, in the areas where such deployment could be perceived by the other Party as a threat to its national security, with the exception of such deployment within the national territories of the Parties. The Parties shall refrain from flying heavy bombers equipped for nuclear or non-nuclear armaments or deploying surface warships of any type, including in the framework of international organizations, military alliances or coalitions, in the areas outside national airspace and national territorial waters respectively, from where they can attack targets in the territory of the other Party.” Article 6 states, “The Parties shall undertake not to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside their national territories, as well as in the areas of their national territories, from which such weapons can attack targets in the national territory of the other Party.” Article 7 states, “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories. The Parties shall eliminate all existing infrastructure for deployment of nuclear weapons outside their national territories.” The key article for Russia in the current dispute is, of course, Article 4, which would prohibit the entry of Ukraine to NATO.
The draft Russia-NATO agreement is likewise three pages and consists of nine articles. Article 1 states, “The Parties shall guide in their relations by the principles of cooperation, equal and indivisible security. They shall not strengthen their security individually, within international organizations, military alliances or coalitions at the expense of the security of other Parties. The Parties shall settle all international disputes in their mutual relations by peaceful means and refrain from the use or threat of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN. The Parties shall not create conditions or situations that pose or could be perceived as a threat to the national security of other Parties.” Article 2 states in part, “In order to address issues and settle problems, the Parties shall use the mechanisms of urgent bilateral or multilateral consultations, including the NATO-Russia Council.” Article 3 states in part, “The Parties reaffirm that they do not consider each other as adversaries.” Article 4 states, “The Russian Federation and all the Parties that were member States of NATO as of 27 May 1997 [the date of the NATO-Russia summit in Paris at which NATO and Russia agreed to the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation], respectively, shall not deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other States in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997. With the consent of all the parties such deployments can take place in exceptional cases to eliminate a threat to security of one or more Parties.” Article 5 states, “The Parties shall not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach the territory of the other Parties.” Article 6 states, “All member States of NATO commit themselves to refrain from any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States.” Article 7 states, “The Parties that are member States of NATO shall not conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States in the Eastern Europe, in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia. In order to exclude incidents the Russian Federation and the Parties that are member States of NATO shall not conduct military exercises or other military activities above the brigade level in a zone of agreed width and configuration on each side of the border line of the Russian Federation and the states in a military alliance with it, as well as Parties that are member States of NATO.” The key articles for Russia are Articles 4-7 – in particular, Article 6, which prohibits any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine.
In his speech yesterday at the annual expanded meeting of the Russian Defence Ministry Board, Putin gave his most extensive explanation to date of why Russia wants the security guarantees described in the draft agreement and draft treaty. Reiterating much of what he said in his speech to the Foreign Ministry Board last month, he said, “the growth of the US and NATO military forces in direct proximity to the Russian border and major military drills, including unscheduled ones, are a cause for concern. It is extremely alarming that elements of the US global defence system are being deployed near Russia. The Mk 41 launchers, which are located in Romania and are to be deployed in Poland, are adapted for launching the Tomahawk strike missiles. If this infrastructure continues to move forward, and if US and NATO missile systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7-10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems. This is a huge challenge for our security.”
Continuing, he said, “In this context, as you are aware, I invited the US President to start talks on the drafting of concrete agreements. Incidentally, during our conversation he actually proposed appointing senior officials to oversee this sphere. It was in response to his proposal that we drafted our proposals on precluding the further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of offensive strike systems in the countries bordering on Russia….We need long-term legally binding guarantees. Well, we know very well that even legal guarantees cannot be completely fail-safe….However, we need at least something, at least a legally binding agreement rather than just verbal assurances. We know the worth of such verbal assurances, fine words and promises. Take the recent past, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we were told that our concerns about NATO’s potential expansion eastwards were absolutely groundless. And then we saw five waves of the bloc’s eastward expansion….Naturally, as I have already noted, if our Western colleagues continue their obviously aggressive line, we will take appropriate military-technical reciprocal measures and will have a tough response to their unfriendly steps. And I would like to stress that we are fully entitled to these actions that are designed to ensure Russia’s security and independence.”
Referring to the draft agreement and treaty, Putin said, “We already see that some of our detractors are interpreting them as Russia’s ultimatum. Is it an ultimatum or not? Of course not. As a reminder: everything that our partners—let us call them that—the United States has been doing in previous years, supposedly ensuring its interests and security thousands of kilometres away from their national territory—they have been doing these rough things, the boldest things, without UN Security Council authorisation…. However, what they are doing, or trying or planning to do in Ukraine, is not happening thousands of kilometres away from our national border. It is on the doorstep of our house. They must understand that we simply have nowhere further to retreat to….The United States does not possess hypersonic weapons yet, but we know when they will have it…They will supply hypersonic weapons to Ukraine and then use them as cover…to arm extremists from a neighboring state and incite them against certain regions of the Russian Federation, such as Crimea, when they think circumstances are favourable. Do they really think we do not see these threats? Or do they think that we will just stand idly watching threats to Russia emerge? This is the problem: we simply have no room to retreat… Armed conflicts and bloodshed are absolutely not our choice. We do not want to see events go that way. We want to use political and diplomatic means to resolve problems but we want to at least have clearly formulated legal guarantees. This is what our proposals are all about. We set them down on paper and sent them to Brussels and Washington, and we hope to receive a clear and comprehensive response to these proposals. There are certain signals that our partners appear to be willing to work on that. However, there is also a danger that they will attempt to drown our proposals in words, or in a swamp, in order to take advantage of this pause and do whatever they want to do. To make it clear to everyone: we are aware of this, and this turn of events, these developments, will not work for us. We look forward to constructive and meaningful talks with a visible outcome—and within a definite timeframe—that would ensure equal security for all.”
Last Thursday, after receiving Russia’s draft agreement, the North Atlantic Council, which consists of the permanent representatives of the NATO member states, issued a statement in which it said, “We are gravely concerned by the substantial, unprovoked, and unjustified Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine in recent months, and reject the false Russian claims of Ukrainian and NATO provocations. We call on Russia to immediately de-escalate, pursue diplomatic channels, and abide by its international commitments on transparency of military activities. We are seriously assessing the implications for Alliance security of the current situation….Any further aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and would carry a high price….We support the right of all countries to decide their own future and foreign policy free from outside interference. NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is a matter only for Ukraine and the 30 NATO Allies. We are ready for meaningful dialogue with Russia. We reiterate our long-standing invitation to Russia for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in the near future. We are clear than any dialogue with Russia would have to proceed on the basis of reciprocity, address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions, be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security and take place in consultation with NATO’s European Partners. Should Russia take concrete steps to reduce tensions, we are prepared to work on strengthening confidence -building measures. The OSCE is also a relevant platform.”
In a press conference last Friday with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated what the Council said, describing the Russian military build-up in and around Ukraine as “unprovoked, unjustified and something which creates great concern among Allies,” called on Russia to immediately de-escalate, pursue diplomatic channels, and abide by its international commitments in regard to the transparency of military activities. While reiterating NATO’s support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and underscoring that NATO’s relationship with Ukraine “is a matter only for Ukraine and the 30 NATO Allies,” he also said, “we are ready for a meaningful dialogue with Russia, and we reiterate our long-standing invitation to Russia for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.” After meeting with Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă of Romania yesterday, Stoltenberg repeated that NATO remains ready for “meaningful dialogue” with Russia and, toward that end, said he intends to call a new meeting of the NATO-Russia Council as soon as possible in the New Year.
In a telephonic press briefing in Brussels yesterday, Donfried said, in regard to Russia’s proposals, the U.S. “is prepared to engage diplomatically through multiple channels, including bilateral engagement, the NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE.” But, she added, “We have made clear that any dialogue must be based on reciprocity, address our concerns about Russia’s actions, and take place in full coordination with our European allies and partners. Let me be clear: There will be no talks on European security without Europe. Any dialogue with Russia must address NATO’s and others’ concerns about Russia’s continued threatening behavior and be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security. We will not compromise the key principles on which European security is built, including that all countries have the right to decide their own foreign and security policy course free from outside interference.” And suggesting the necessary pre-condition for opening the talks, she said, “We believe talks will be more productive if they happen in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation.”
If Putin has his “red lines,” so too the U.S. and NATO have their “red lines”—very wide “red lines.” Article 4 of Russia’s draft treaty with the U.S. and Article 6 of its draft agreement with NATO, both of which would prohibit Ukraine or any other state (e.g., Georgia) that once was a member of the USSR from joining NATO, clearly cross those “red lines.” Neither the U.S. nor NATO will ever accept such a prohibition and Russia obviously knows that, even if the language of the draft treaty and agreement implies that’s negotiable. The challenge for the U.S. and NATO will thus be keeping Russia at the table even if Ukraine’s future accession to NATO isn’t on the table for negotiation. Whether they can do that, and whether Russia remains at the table even with Ukraine’s accession to NATO off the table, remains to be seen.
David R. Cameron is a professor emeritus of political science and the former director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.