U.S.-Russia Talks Have Echoes of the Cold War


The depth of the gap was evident in the public comments of Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, before he went to dinner Sunday night with Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state. He barely mentioned Ukraine. Russia’s goal, he said, was far larger — and the Americans, he argued, had a “lack of understanding” about Moscow’s strategic objectives.

“We need to assure the curtailing of the destructive NATO activities that have been taking place for decades and bring NATO back to positions that are essentially equivalent to what was the case in 1997,” Mr. Ryabkov said. “But it is precisely on these issues that we hear least of all any readiness on the part of the American side and NATO to come to an agreement.”

He did not choose the year 1997 by chance. That was the year of the “NATO-Russia Founding Act,” which in the Clinton Administration’s phrasing envisioned “an enduring and robust partnership between the Alliance and Russia.” The agreement made clear, the State Department said at the time, that Russia did not have a veto over alliance decisions and that NATO membership would “remain open to all emerging European democracies.”

Since then, 15 nations have joined the NATO alliance, over Russia’s increasingly strident objections. And while there is little chance that Ukraine would qualify for membership for years to come, Mr. Putin has made clear that it is not enough to simply provide an assurance that Ukraine, which he considers part of the heart of the old Soviet empire, would never join NATO.

Mr. Putin also wants to ensure that the West’s arms and troops are banished from the former Soviet states. The fear among Western officials is that any such retreat would endanger those democracies, and enable Mr. Putin to amp up his strategy of intimidation — via threat of invasion, election manipulation, cyberattack or other forms of coercion.

Mr. Ryabkov said on Sunday that he was intent on negotiating “dynamically, without pauses,” to prevent the West from “putting the brakes on all this and burying it in endless discussions.” Which, of course, is exactly what Washington and its European allies would like to do: slow down the process while they try to negotiate a withdrawal of the 100,000 or so Russian troops now massing on three sides of Ukraine.

Mr. Putin, Pentagon strategists believe, knows his window is limited: His battalions can only mount a major invasion in the depths of winter, when the ground is frozen enough roll tanks and armored personnel carriers across the border. By April, mud season sets in.

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