Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual press conference in the Kremlin on Thursday where he said he welcomed talks with the West, set to begin in January, but demanded that the negotiations produce quick results.
Asked if he could provide a guarantee that Russia will not invade Ukraine, Putin claimed: “It’s you who must give us guarantees and give them immediately, now, and not have idle talk about it for decades.”
Putin has designs on Ukraine and any interference by NATO would be a “red line.” That includes inviting Ukraine to join NATO.
During the “news conference” — an exercise in stage-managed propaganda — Putin told the West to essentially pull back from eastern Europe.
Last week, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. A key principle of the NATO alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country.
“Is it us who are putting missiles near the U.S. borders?” Putin said. “No, it’s the U.S. who came to our home with their missiles. They are already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any offensive systems near our home?”
And that includes not placing any NATO military assets in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic — front-line states against Putin’s aggression.
Putin’s demands are intolerable. The question then becomes: how far will the West go to satisfy Putin?
Putin wants to find that out too.
The U.S. and its allies have said they won’t give Russia the kind of guarantee on Ukraine that Putin wants. American officials are conferring with European allies in advance of the Geneva talks.
The Russian leader charged during his news conference that the West had “cheated, blatantly swindled” Moscow by offering verbal pledges in the 1990s not to expand NATO’s presence east and then enlarging to incorporate former Soviet bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics.
That’s an interesting take on history from Mr. Putin but it does not reflect the reality of what actually happened. There was no “guarantee” at that time that prohibited NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.
More than a quarter-century ago, in February 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discussed NATO’s future role in a unified Germany. Baker told Gorbachev that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east” and agreed with Gorbachev’s statement that “Any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable.” Conversation over, right? Wrong. Gorbachev himself has acknowledged that their meetings were an early discussion in what became negotiations over the terms of German unification, rather than a broader conversation about NATO’s future role in Europe. Understanding the twists and turns of these negotiations is crucial to understanding today’s contested narratives.
In fact, Gorbachev ended up accepting the concept of NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries. And as Russia under Putin has become more aggressive militarily, those former Soviet-bloc countries have sought refuge in NATO membership.
It galls Putin that he can’t do anything about it. So, like any bully, he resorts to threats.
NATO can’t allow Putin to dictate who can join the alliance and who can’t. If NATO negotiates that right away, they may as well close their Brussels headquarters and come home.
But neither will NATO go to war to save Ukraine. The trick for Biden is to keep Putin guessing on that subject: will he, or won’t he? So far, Putin has been able to achieve most of what he wants without too much bloodshed. But until NATO makes it clear to him that, more than a sanctions red line, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would lead to military conflict, the threat of invasion will be there.