Blinken and Lavrov Meeting in Geneva: Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

Contrary to my expectations, the 90 minute meeting of Blinken and Lavrov in Geneva yesterday appears to have had some justification and ended with a slightly improved prognosis for resolution of the crises, both those at the borders of Ukraine and those in bilateral US-Russian relations over satisfaction of Russian demands that the security architecture of Europe be redrawn.

Very subtly, the second issue is moving into the center of attention, which is, all by itself, an undeniable achievement of Vladimir Putin’s stated policy of maintaining and intensifying pressure on the West to be heard about its security concerns.

In his press briefing, Blinken repeated his by now ritualistic statement that there will be severe economic punishment if Russia invades Ukraine. However, he also said that the United States will submit to Russia a written response to its draft treaties of 15 December within the coming week.  To this he added that the sides will meet again at the ministerial level after that submission, and, most significantly, that the U.S. President is ready to hold another summit meeting with President Putin if the sides believe that will be useful.

From the foregoing, one can extract the message that there will be some substantive counter offer from the United States to the Russian text that will be sufficiently interesting for the talks to continue and even to be bumped up to the presidential level. 

Sergei Lavrov’s separate press briefing was broadcast live by both CNN and the BBC, something we have not seen in years.

Lavrov declined to characterize the talks as proceeding well or otherwise and insisted that will be clear only after the American submission is received. He explained to journalists that the substance of the meeting had been to provide the Americans with clarifications of several points in the draft treaties.  We may assume that one such clarification was over the meaning of the Russian demand that NATO return to the 1997 status quo before the accession of former Warsaw Pact member countries.  We now were told that in the case of Bulgaria and Romania, for example, all NATO troops and installations would have to be removed.

On the sidelines of the talks, one interesting and relevant piece of news which the Russian state television reported but I have not seen in Western media.  Deputy Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov said to a journalist who met him in the cloakroom as he was on his way to the meeting: “We are not afraid of anyone, including the United States!”

That is a statement which only a handful of nations in the world can make.  It reflects the newfound self-confidence that is propelling the Russians forward in their present quest for treatment as equals by the Collective West and for changed security arrangements in Europe.

This brings us to the other side of the equation – the step back.  Both Russia on the one side and the United States with NATO member countries on the other are proceeding apace with saber rattling.

The US embassy in Kiev announced yesterday the arrival by plane of substantial new “lethal arms” to Ukraine, apparently ammunition. Meanwhile, the day before, the United Kingdom had made numerous flights to Kiev to bring in weapons and elite trainers/military advisers.

For its part, Russia announced yesterday the immediate start of a worldwide exercise of naval power that includes the move of landing assault vessels into the Black Sea. Russia also has in the past few days added another 6,000 soldiers to its 100,000 strong forces at the Ukraine borders and has brought in Iskander missile launchers capable of making precise and highly destructive strikes on Kiev. Furthermore, Russia has brought into the theater its S-400 air defense missiles, which would enable it to enforce a ‘no fly zone’ over Ukraine at any time of its choosing, thereby denying access to the United States and other allied planes for delivery of further weapons or for performance of aerial reconnaissance.

All of the foregoing Russian measures fit nicely into the description of ‘military technical measures’ that Vladimir Putin had said Russia will apply should the talks with the United States over its security demands reach a dead end.

So far not a single shot has been fired. There is heightened tension but no war. It is safe to assume that this line of psychological warfare is precisely the favored strategy of the Russian President to reach his objective of revising the European security architecture.

Already the fissures within Europe over how to respond to the Russian demands are deepening.  In a lengthy address to the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg, French President Emanuel Macron has spoken of the need for a Europeans-only approach to Russia on this question, showing more than a measure of skepticism if not contempt for the Biden administration. And German chancellor Scholz has tamed his inexperienced, loudmouth Greens Party foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and has himself taken the lead in parting company with the United States and fellow NATO members over how to deal with Moscow.  Even the BBC reporting yesterday on the flights of British planes carrying military supplies to Ukraine showed the large arc by which they skirted German airspace, traveling instead to the north through Denmark to avoid conflict with the German government’s policy against sending arms to Ukraine under present conditions.

Similarly, The Financial Times and other mainstream Western press are now giving considerably more attention to the Russian security demands which were previously buried in coverage of the standoff at the Ukraine-Russia border.

The task before Vladimir Putin is to convert what the Russian leadership believes to be their present “window of opportunity,” when they have strategic and tactical  military advantage over the United States and NATO, into political gain.  They are demanding changes to the security architecture that normally come only after one side has won a war.  It is devilishly difficult to achieve without ‘breaking some china’ though that is the constraint that the ever cautious Putin is working under.

As I have mentioned in prior articles, one element in the ongoing Psy-ops is to release every few days information about additional options available to the Kremlin to get its way without invading Ukraine. One such option that emerged a couple of days ago was the announcement that a bill has been introduced in the State Duma calling upon President Putin to recognize the Donbas republics of Lugansk and Donetsk as independent, sovereign countries,, preparing the way for possible Russian annexation. Yesterday, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov addressed this issue, saying it must be approached “with caution.” It has further come out that the initiators of the bill in question were the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, not the ultra-nationalist LDPR of Zhirinovsky or the ruling party United Russia. Russian politics are definitely more complex and ‘normal’ than our Western media and governments tend to understand.

Apart from ideologically blinded fools in the United States, among them well known former diplomats like Ivo Daalder (ambassador to NATO 2009-2013) who published his view on how to constrain Putin in The Financial Times two days ago, the realistically minded politicians and statesmen in the United States, of whom there always were quite a few, are now sitting up straight and paying attention to Putin. We have not heard the words ‘thug’ or ‘killer’ applied to his name for some time. The worst we hear from people like Daalder is that he is a ’dictator’ and so by definition is our adversary in the global struggle between freedom loving democratic countries and dictatorships. But such Neocon ideological nonsense always was a veneer for popular consumption over the bitter pill of American military dominance.  Now confidence in that dominance is being put to the acid test by the Russians.

All of which brings me to the final point today, to what extent is the Russian confidence in its negotiating position assisted by the country’s growing alliance with China. 

In the United States, in the past several years when China was identified by US President Trump as the prospective Public Enemy Number One that had to be contained at all costs, there has been the beating of drums in the American press telling us that the PRC is busy developing what will soon be the world’s most powerful armed forces.

In August 2021, when the Chinese conducted their first tests of their own hypersonic missiles, Western newspapers all quoted one Pentagon official who claimed this was a new ‘Sputnik moment,’ meaning that the Chinese had moved ahead technologically with an awesome new weapon system.  They all ignored the fact that the Russians had done the same three years earlier and now had hypersonic glide missiles ready for serial production.

In short, Western media and, presumably, most Western politicians were deceived by their own prevailing propaganda about Russia being a power in decline with ability only to act as ‘spoiler,’ and ignored the reality which the Russians are saying loudly and clearly today: that they have the world’s most modern armed forces and are second in strength globally only to the United States.

What this means is that the Chinese factor in Russian strategic actions exists only in the economic domain, where cooperation with China in the event of drastic US and European sanctions such as cutoff from SWIFT will be very important for stability of the Russian economy and military potential.  However, in all other respects, the China factor is useful to Russia only as a scarecrow, to raise US fears of a simultaneous Chinese strike on Taiwan when the Russians invade Ukraine.  Neither event is likely to happen, but the possibility is another feature of Russia’s ongoing psychological warfare to achieve its security objectives.

Post Script, 23.01.22: In the past 24 hours several additional noteworthy facts about the Blinken-Lavrov meeting have been released by one or the other side. First, Blinken told Lavrov that when the US response to the Russian draft treaties is handed over, they do not want the contents released to the press. As political commentator and talk show host Vladimir Solovyov has remarked today on his daytime television show, this suggests that the White House does not want the Western press to jump on Biden’s proposals at once and frustrate his will to do a deal with the Russians that averts a war. This would line up very well with the supposed gaffe of Biden a day ago when he said the United States would only react to a major Russian incursion in Ukraine, which the State Department immediately swooped in to retract. It would appear that the 78 year old Biden is the weak link in the bipartisan Democrat-Republican lineup of hawks in the capital. This may be the old man’s saving grace. For these reasons yet another Biden-Putin summit may yet achieve a breakthrough, though how Biden will sell the deal to Congress is the great puzzle.

Another fact relating to the meeting in Geneva on Friday is that for 15 minutes the two ministers of foreign affairs met one on one, without their advisors or translators. Russian commentators have mentioned the Iran nuclear deal talks as one of the subjects they discussed. This would be entirely logical given that Vladimir Putin and the visiting Iranian president had held talks in Moscow a few days earlier. And it would suggest a degree of collegiality in dealing with a common problem that one might not expect from the very frosty U.S.-Russian relations at this moment. There is also the remark by Russian observers that they talked about restoring normal functionality to their respective diplomatic missions in one another’s country.

Finally, it bears mention that in his Sunday evening broadcast News of the Week, presenter Dmitry Kiselyov opened the segment devoted to the state of play with Blinken and the American negotiators by saying that should the talks fail Russia will start releasing details of its agreements with the presidents of Nicaragua and Venezuela about “strategic cooperation.” This was said to underline that the Russian security demands in Europe are separate from and far exceed the question of finding solutions in Ukraine. By consciously reconstructing the issues underlying the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kremlin would be targeting directly the hypocrisy of U.S. insistence that Russia may not enjoy a sphere of influence at its borders. The Monroe Doctrine would unravel and Russia’s prestige in Latin America would likely soar. Here again, the Putin strategy would be psychological warfare and not aggression by kinetic warfare.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

2 thoughts on “Blinken and Lavrov Meeting in Geneva: Two Steps Forward and One Step Back”

  1. “It would appear that the 78 year old Biden is the weak link in the bipartisan Democrat-Republican lineup of hawks in the capital.”

    And he’s probably blissfully unaware of that fact. BTW, that’s 79 now.

  2. Absolutely nothing has changed. The Ukies remain on the contact line and according to the DPR have moved multiple-barrel missiles launchers to the contact line as well as other actions.

    Blinken asked on CNN whether US forces would be sent to Ukraine in case of a Ukraine-Russia war did not rule it out by evading the question.

    Those nine (or ten depending on who’s counting) NATO military exercises are on schedule for February.

    Bottom line: The “step forward” is more talk while the US and NATO issue more threats and more propaganda. The “step back” is continued actual military preparations for war.

    And we’re relying on Biden to stop the war. Right.

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