Great Power is pleased to bring you this guest post from Eerik-Niiles Kross, a former Estonian intelligence director and current Member of Parliament. In the early ‘90s, Kross participated in the Estonian-Russian negotiations on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia. Kross was also an advisor to the Georgian government during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Kross’s essay on how Putin evaluates his options on Ukraine and the West was cited in a recent Great Power essay on Ukraine. It read: “The question is: if the West does not submit to this manipulation, is Russia still prepared to go to war, at least against Ukraine? It depends on the credibility of the West’s response. As of today, such a credible response is nowhere to be seen. Peace and de-escalation plans and telephone calls are today a sure-sign for Moscow that there will be no opposition. Putin holds negotiations with a pistol on the table, and if the other negotiating party puts a box of chocolates on the table instead of a bigger pistol, things are clear for Putin. The West may be ‘concerned’ — and Russia may take by war whatever it considers necessary.”
This new essay fleshes out this idea, that our approach to negotiations with Moscow is deeply flawed and misaligned on goals.
It also looks at the proposed draft agreements from Moscow for new European security architecture, and digs into what they really mean. Are the Russians just trolling the White House and hoping they will step into a trap? What is the way out?
How threats against Ukraine became negotiations on European security architecture
by Eerik-Niiles Kross
On December 17, Russia published two documents in the form of draft treaties: one for the United States, and one for NATO. The Kremlin said the West should sign these to give Russia “security guarantees” and resolve the “long-lasting crisis” in Russia-US and Russia-NATO relations. On the same day, the Russian deputy foreign minister said the drafts are not a “menu” to select from, but need to be accepted in their totality.
A well-coordinated wave of direct and veiled threats followed — demands and accusations from Putin, the Kremlin, the Russian military, the Duma, and the MFA, all of which remain ongoing. Quite skillfully, a set of totally outrageous demands were presented with a smirk — a literal smirk. You either accept these or you will have war. If you respond well, we might negotiate with you.
The main points of Russia’s demands are:
NATO must abandon further enlargement;
NATO must remove its weapons and infrastructure from all countries that joined after 1997 (ie, all 14 new members except former East Germany) and commit not to station equipment there;
NATO troops may be deployed into the post-1997 member states only rarely and with Russian consent;
NATO must commit not to carry out military “activities” in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia.
It’s pretty clear that no one in their right mind in Moscow could have thought that these demands would be seriously considered. The demands are outrageous and contradict the declared policy positions of Washington and NATO regarding European defense, NATO enlargement, Ukraine, and more. Since its inception, for example, one of NATO’s founding principles has been that it is open to all European countries that wish and qualify to join. A basic principle of security policy in the free world since WWII has been that each country must be free to decide its own security policy and choose its own allies. In 2008, NATO confirmed in the Bucharest summit declaration that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. NATO, as a military alliance, is founded on the principle that non-Allies can never dictate what the Alliance does to protect its territory.
All of this should make the Russian proposals an obvious non-starter. Or so we thought. Russia is demanding to negotiate things that the West has repeatedly said cannot be negotiated.
So what is the Russian proposal really about? First, weakening the opponent before they even come to the table — trolling the Biden White House. Second, weakening the unity of NATO by directly threatening its Eastern members and correctly calculating that Washington will be evasive in its response. Third, part of the Russian operational goal in early phases of any military operation is to “gain information superiority.” Now NATO and Washington are arguing about threats to NATO and are distracted. Putin said, with another smirk, he takes note of the US “positive reaction” to his demands.
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Washington seems not to understand that public disclosure of the alleged “negotiating position” by Russia is not real. This is not their actual negotiating position, and they do not expect these points to be accepted or seriously negotiated.
The sequence of events that has played out follows a standard Kremlin playbook to set the terms of engagement while stirring unrest in the opponent.
Russia began escalation by openly amassing troops near Ukraine’s border and publicly beating the war drum in the media. Most probably they also leaked some threatening intel — real or false attack plans — to the Americans through one channel or another.
The US made the first miscalculation by trying to deter the Russians via the media (ie, announcing the intelligence assessment that Russia is preparing for an invasion) while not lifting a finger on the ground. Nothing was done in real life to boost security along NATO’s Eastern flank or within Ukraine. There were promises of sanctions and help for Ukraine if Russia invades.
Russia continued escalating. Biden proposed a phone call with Putin to “cool down the temperature.” No conditions were set for the phone call to happen. The White House gave a readout of the phone call that focused on Ukraine, telling Putin that if he invades there will be sanctions. The Kremlin version of the readout discussed the call as a much wider selection of topics — NATO expansion, Eastern Europe, new security architecture, etc.
The day after that Putin-Biden phone call, Biden said he had decided to start talks between Russia and five major NATO members to discuss “Russia’s security concerns.” This statement was followed by a storm of outrage both in the so-called B9 (NATO Eastern flank countries) and in the countries between the “NATO big 5” and the B9 — because none of these groups or NATO itself had been consulted or informed about such negotiations before Biden announced them. And the B9 is very directly impacted by Russia’s threats.
During the following week, the White House tried to contain the damage, and the slogan “nothing about you without you” was coined and circulated, referring not only to Ukraine, but to the B9 and other European allies. A plan for NATO-Russia talks was hastily proposed together with parallel US-Russia talks, plus talks in the OSCE where Ukraine could also participate. No real plan to offer Ukraine serious military assistance or to bolster the defense of NATO’s Eastern flank was agreed to in Brussels. Instead, the White House delayed some previously-agreed US weapons shipments to Ukraine. As an incentive to Russia to be reasonable.
Ten days after the Putin-Biden call, the Russians issued their ultimatums as draft agreements. While Washington may have thought that talks were coming to ease the crisis in Ukraine and “lower the temperature,” Putin had escalated radically. The talks were no longer about Ukraine. A proposal to demolish the security architecture of the whole of Europe — allegedly necessary to appease Russia — was now sitting on the table.
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Unfortunately, it seems Russia calculated correctly that the White House is more worried about a “new war” than preserving the security of its allies. The “no more forever wars” promise is clearly tying the hands of Washington — and giving the Russians a free hand.
This mindset is the only way to explain why President Biden accepted another phone call from Putin after the publication of these ludicrous drafts — and after Putin had, on December 29, closed down Russian human rights group Memorial as if declaring a start of a new-Stalinist era.
No one in Washington or Brussels has called the Kremlin’s bluff on their demands. Instead of declaring them a bad joke, the White House has basically accepted that Russia has “legitimate security concerns” in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Tacitly, Washington has made clear that it has no idea where this leaves us.
After Russia published the draft agreements, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said: “But fundamentally our strategy is going to be to coordinate closely, to have allied unity, and then be prepared to sit with Russia and respond positively to the idea that we can have a discussion in the appropriate format on the principle of ‘nothing about you without you,’ and see where it takes us.”
…What does that even mean? That you don’t know what outcome you want from a negotiation, but “will see” where it “takes you” during the negotiations? Any negotiation that begins with no goals is already a failure.
It seems the White House is also refusing to understand another obvious fact. Russia does not really want to negotiate. Russia would, of course, happily agree to divide Europe into spheres of influence and accept Western legitimization of its schemes in Ukraine. Russia would accept removing Western influence from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, and be glad to step in to subjugate Eastern Europe. This time it would do these things with formalized Western approval — unlike in 1945, when it was tacit approval. This is what their “drafts” mean. But this is not their negotiating position.
Russia’s real goal is to regain control of Ukraine and Belarus — and this time get it with Western approval. The attempt to open talks about NATO and Europe is a) a distraction b) aimed to sow discord and mistrust among the allies and c) set to humiliate President Biden.
So far, Washington has fallen into the trap of offering goodwill to the Kremlin and failing to tend the allies on time. It failed to inform the allies about planned talks with the Russians; it started to delay assistance to Ukraine in order “not to provoke” the Russians; it did not call the bluff of the “drafts,” thus sending chills through NATO allies; and it legitimized the drafts by accepting another call with Putin. Washington keeps entertaining “talks about Russian security concerns.” All while Russia is the security concern, calmly preparing for another invasion.
As long as Washington does not say clearly that it rejects all and any Russian demand about the security arrangements in any NATO member, Putin’s team is winning. Because if the White House’s response to the demand to give half of Europe to Russia is “we’ll see where it takes us,” the alarm among members of the alliance is growing. Alarm not about the Russians, but about the Americans — a position everyone had hoped not to be in after the upheaval of the last American presidency. We know what the Russians want, but we are confused about what the Americans want.
At the moment, once again, the goals of Moscow and Washington in resolving the crisis seem to be in completely different categories. Moscow really wants to create a new security architecture, in which it essentially retains the right to dictate half of European security and legitimizes its “sphere of influence;” Washington wants to eliminate the threat of war in Ukraine at all costs. Moscow’s goal is strategic; Washington’s tactical. Anticipated goals aren’t even in the same plane of reality.
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One final point worth making about where things currently stand returns to the smirk with which Moscow dumped these proposals into the media.
The Russians love to be clever, and in particular to weaponize your own words and actions against you in a gleeful and deliberate way — this is the surest way to earn that smirk. And sure enough, the Russian drafts are a direct trolling exercise of declared US policy — and in particular, of a speech about NATO that President Obama delivered. The Kremlin views the Biden policy as a continuation of the Obama years.
In September 2014, six months after Russia annexed Crimea, President Obama visited Estonia on his way to the NATO summit in Wales. In Tallinn, he delivered what was his most clear-eyed and forward-leaning speech about Russia, which broadly discussed NATO, Ukraine, and US goals for European security.
Putin was furious with Obama’s Tallinn speech, which was a rally-cry for the NATO alliance and the “an attack on one is an attack on all” framework. Russia responded tactically just a few days later — by kidnapping an Estonian security officer from inside Estonian territory. That is — by kidnapping an Estonian security officer from inside NATO territory, the territory that Obama had just pledged to defend.
This was the tactical response. The December 17 draft proposals are the strategic response.
If you compare the text of these new Russian agreements with the text of President Obama’s speech in Tallinn, the draft agreements attempt to turn the principles declared by President Obama upside down. They demand that everything that Obama confirmed will never happen again. The right to veto the security policy decisions of other countries is demanded; the right to change state borders by force is required; NATO is divided into senior and junior partners; a sphere of influence is required; and so on. A full comparison of this Russian rebuttal follows below. It may seem a trivial thing, but it speaks to the Kremlin’s mindset in the preparation of the draft. It is grudge-scratching — trolling of the most subtle and obnoxious order.
What we — we the West, we NATO — need now is a proper response. A proper response led from Washington. Until then, we cling to the hope that Churchill correctly stated: that the Americans will always do the right thing — after exhausting all the alternatives. We are fast running out of alternatives.
President Biden’s team would do well to dust off their copy of Obama’s Tallinn speech, remember the process through which President Obama arrived at this position of fortitude, and start with that framework as the basis for any future talks with Moscow. The Alliance needs this leadership from Washington.