Fears of a Russian attack on its neighbor rose when NATO and the U.S. rejected the Kremlin’s security demands regarding Ukraine.
Instead of sending armored armoured armadas over the Ukrainian border, the U.S. and its allies were worried, Moscow bombarded Western capitals in diplomatic letters about an international accord that the Kremlin considers a strong argument for their position in the standoff.
Although President Vladimir Putin stated a month ago that Russia wanted a quick response and warned that Moscow wouldn't accept "idle talks", he indicated earlier this week that he was ready for further talks with Washington and NATO.
This gives hope. Even though more than 100,000 Russian troops are still positioned near Ukraine, and weeks of negotiations have not resulted in any major concessions from either side, Russia and the West continue to talk, which, according to some experts, is a cause for cautious optimism.
"On one hand, Putin did use rhetorical insults against the West and stressed perceived slights; but on the other hand, he did leave open the possibility to talk more about at least some issues where the West is willing to engage," stated Jeff Rathke who was a former U.S diplomat and president of American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Rathke stated that "We are kind of back to where we were a few week ago." "Putin is open to all options. He has not ruled out negotiations, but he has not reduced his strident rhetoric."
Russia and the West are still at odds on most important issues, and it is unclear how they could come to an agreement. The Kremlin's emphasis on diplomacy seems to be a reflection of Putin's desire to reach his goals through negotiations and the use of the deployments of troops near Ukraine to leverage.
Fyodor Lukyanov heads the Moscow-based Council for Foreign and Defense Policies and closely monitors Kremlin thinking. He stated that Russia will continue to take a firm stand, but also show it is not willing to compromise. "Such complex agreements can't be reached in a relaxed atmosphere over a cup o tea. Therefore, all means of persuasion, including force, are being used."
Russia claims it does not intend to attack its neighbor. However, it insists that NATO withdraw Ukraine from the ex-Soviet countries and that it pledges to stop deploying weapons in Ukraine. It also demands that NATO withdrawals from Eastern Europe be halted.
During a series talks last month, the U.S. and its allies rejected these demands as "nonstarters". However, Moscow demanded a written response, fueling suspicions about Moscow's desire to reject its demands for an argument for sending troops to Ukraine.
On Jan. 26, the U.S. and NATO sent their response to Moscow. They rejected any concessions on Russia’s main demands, but left the door open for negotiations on other issues such as limits on missile deployments and greater transparency in military drills.
Putin has not yet responded to the Western proposals. However, his diplomats warned that it would be difficult to make any progress on those matters if the West continues its obstruction of Moscow's main demands.
Fears of imminent hostilities have been heightened by the deadlock. Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden called Ukraine's president to warn him that Russia is "distinctly possible" to invade Ukraine in February.
Moscow seems to be choosing a diplomatic path for now, and U.S. officials have recently toned down rhetoric about "imminence" but the U.S. is not abandoning its urgency.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote new letters to his Western counterparts a week ago. This was in response to NATO's claim that all countries have the right to choose their alliances. He claimed that Russia's expansion of the alliance violates its obligation to not strengthen its security at Russia’s expense.
Lavrov stated that the U.S. and its allies had pledged to respect "indivisibility" in security documents signed at summits by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the main trans-Atlantic security organization).
Lavrov wrote that security must be provided for all, or there will not be security for anyone. He noted that his ministry would wait for official replies to his letter before giving advice to Putin on the next steps.
Putin indicated his willingness to have such discussions.
The Russian leader made his first public comments on the standoff since December. He noted that even though the West rejected Russia's most important demands, diplomatic efforts should be continued. Putin stated that he hoped that a solution would be found, but that it was not easy.
The patient stand is in contrast to Putin's December statement that he wanted a quick Western response and could order unspecified military-technical steps if the U.S. continues to ignore Moscow's concerns.
Putin did not mention any such measures in his comments this past week. He stated that "we must find a way of ensuring interests and security for all parties," including Ukraine and European nations.
Russia engaged in separate negotiations regarding a 2015 stalled peace agreement for eastern Ukraine. The four-way Paris meeting between the presidential envoys of Russia, Ukraine and France didn't result in immediate progress but they will be meeting again in Berlin later this month.
French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken with Putin three times since Friday. He will visit Moscow on Monday and Tuesday to try to ease tensions. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will also travel on February 14-15 to Russia and Ukraine.
Lukyanov stated that Russia will likely continue to flex its military muscles to show its resolve. He said that Russia could afford to keep troops close to Ukraine for a prolonged time, and will continue a series drills to maintain West pressure.
Lukyanov stated that troops could come and go. It's inexpensive and can be done with funds already allocated for combat training.
These drills included joint war games with Russia's ally Belarus. Belarus borders Ukraine to its north. Lukyanov predicted that Russia would further strengthen its defense ties.
After being hit by Western sanctions for his crackdown against dissent, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus' authoritarian president, has moved closer to Moscow and has already offered to host Russian nuclear weapons.
Lukyanov stated that Belarus will play an important role in the game.