NATO-Russia Council: Ukraine conflict: the signs point to confrontation

Brussels With a serious, almost gloomy face, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared in front of the press on Wednesday. He reported on a “difficult discussion” between the Alliance and Russia, on a “decisive moment for European security” and on “significant differences”. It will not be easy to bridge these differences, warned Stoltenberg.

And yet there seems to be a slight easing of tension in the dispute with Russia over Ukraine. Even the fact that NATO and the leadership in Moscow are talking to each other again at all can be seen as a positive sign.

The meeting, which was attended by government members Alexander Fomin and Alexander Gruschko on the Russian side, was the first of its kind in two years. The Americans were also well represented. Vice Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led the US delegation. Sherman met her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov in Geneva on Monday. Further talks with Russia are planned for Thursday at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna.

In the matter of course there have so far hardly been any approximations. At the NATO headquarters in Brussels, the Russians repeated their demand that NATO stop accepting new countries and withdraw military equipment from Eastern Europe. NATO does not want to accommodate Moscow on these fundamental points. “For their part, the allies have reaffirmed the open door policy and the right of all nations to make their own security arrangements,” stressed Stoltenberg. Furthermore, the allies had made it clear that they were not prepared to compromise on defense capabilities, “including the ability to station troops in the eastern part of the alliance”.

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Nevertheless, both sides reaffirmed their interest in further dialogue. Therefore, the possibility of further meetings should now be examined. After all. This is not a breakthrough, for a long time, but more than was to be expected after the mutual threatening gestures of the past few weeks.

Moscow is demanding security guarantees from NATO

Russia has gathered around 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine. The West fears an invasion, which the government in Moscow rejects.

In the event that Putin actually allows his troops to move into Ukraine, Michael Roth (SPD), Chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, calls for harsh sanctions – he is even putting the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline up for grabs.

“In the event of a further escalation through Russia, Nord Stream 2 should also be on the negotiating table in addition to other options,” said Roth in an interview with Handelsblatt. “Nord Stream has always been a political project too.” Germany would have failed to “always incorporate the pipeline into a pan-European energy policy strategy”.

With this, Roth strikes a much more critical tone than other leading SPD politicians. Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently described Nord Stream 2 as a “private-sector project”.

The pipeline is very important for Russia not only for economic reasons, it is also a prestige object of Putin. In addition to excluding Russia from Swift, the communications network that is indispensable for international payments, Nord Stream 2 could be a very important sanctioning instrument.

Scientist: Moscow and Washington are completely at odds with one another

It cannot be ruled out that it will be used. Because despite all the talks this week: There are still no signs of moving away from the maximum position on both sides. The Russian side had not promised any concrete de-escalation steps in Brussels, said US diplomat Sherman after the NATO meeting.

The influential Moscow political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov sees seemingly irreconcilable differences between Russia and the West. Mainly because the Russian side is calling into question the European security order that came into being after the fall of the Iron Curtain: what has been an irrefutable axiom for 30 years, “its revision is not possible without a sharp shock” , said Lukyanov, who is regarded as the leading foreign policy expert in Russia.

Moscow and Washington are speaking completely at odds with each other: while the US is talking about arms control talks, “it is about the principles of European security, about the revision of what has been accepted since the Cold War,” said Lukyanov. The contradictions currently appeared “insoluble” and “a new and rather dangerous escalation could be required” to reach a solution.
The Russian government also gives little hope of an agreement: the Russian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, called on NATO to withdraw from the areas that had joined the alliance since 1997. The West should “not underestimate the risks of a military confrontation”. These statements fuel fears that after a week of negotiations Moscow will not feel taken seriously and then take military action against Ukraine, according to security experts in Moscow.

The Ukraine crisis coincides with an extremely tense situation on the energy markets. So far, the USA in particular has argued that this is not a coincidence, but part of the Russian intimidation strategy – and is now receiving support from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The high natural gas prices and low storage levels were largely due to the behavior of the state-owned Russian energy company Gazprom, said the managing director of the IEA, Fatih Birol.
Russia is able to provide up to a third more gas through the existing pipelines – which would amount to around ten percent of daily European consumption. This would roughly correspond to the amount that, according to industry representatives, would be necessary to prevent a severe shortage in the event of a cold winter.

More: Comment: In the Russian dispute we need tough negotiations – and, if necessary, severe sanctions

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