After a week of diplomatic summit talks, little has come to easing tensions between Russia and the West. The two sides are still diametrically opposed, was confirmed today by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
At his annual press conference, Lavrov said the Kremlin would not wait indefinitely for a Western response to Moscow’s demands. Russia demands that NATO not expand or deploy troops in Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states and wants a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.
NATO is now at our borders
When asked why the question of Ukraine’s eventual membership of NATO is so pressing right now, Lavrov said: “We’ve run out of patience.” According to him, the NATO threat began in the 1990s, when NATO tossed the pledge of non-expansion – a promise NATO says never was made – in the trash. “There have been five waves of enlargement over the years, and as a result, NATO is now on our borders,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov reiterated the words we heard over and over from Moscow in recent days: “We need legally binding guarantees. The demands are clear and we expect a written response within a week.”
President Putin previously said Russia will respond “militarily-technically” if it doesn’t get guarantees this week. When asked what exactly that means, Lavrov said today that Putin’s answer will depend on the advice he gets from military experts.
He added that he does not “read tea leaves, as Americans like to do”. In other words: it keeps looking coffee grounds.
A Finnish journalist asked whether Russia thinks that Finland and Sweden – unlike Ukraine – should be allowed to decide for themselves about possible NATO membership. “Of course we respect the sovereignty of Finland and Sweden. That is their choice,” said Lavrov. “The problem is that sovereignty is not respected by those who want to provoke their entry into NATO.”
Worst crisis since the Cold War
In recent months, Russia has stationed tens of thousands of military personnel on the border with Ukraine, raising suspicions that it is preparing another invasion. NATO has repeatedly made it clear that the demands made by Russia are unacceptable. Furthermore, the US and NATO have warned Russia of “tremendous consequences” if Russia resumes its aggression against Ukraine.
For example, it threatens to shut down Russia’s SWIFT system that processes international transactions between major banks and to put an embargo on the sale of American products and technology to Russia. NATO also says it will arm Ukrainian forces that can wage a guerrilla war against Russia. Russia says it will cut all ties with the West if such sanctions follow.
In the Russian state media, threatening war language is heard every day. This week is being portrayed as the moment of truth: will NATO respect Russia and comply with the full package of demands? And if not, is the West ready for the ‘military-technical’ consequences?
Optimists hoped for new agreements on arms control or on advance notification of military exercises. That would take some of the pressure off the kettle. But Moscow doesn’t seem to want to budge and puts all the responsibility on the West.
It is feared that after these failed talks, Russia may say: “You see, we have tried diplomatically in every way, but the West gives us no security guarantees. So they leave us no choice but to defend ourselves.” In order to possibly take further steps towards Ukraine.
At the press conference, Lavrov touched on a few other topics, such as the strengthened ties between Belarus and Russia and the planned union state, which is now “90 percent complete”. The relationship with China was discussed (“we have unique ties to China and we defend our national interests hand in hand”) and press freedom (“why was the west silent when our Russian state press office was attacked during the protests in Kazakhstan?” ? Press freedom is so important there, isn’t it?”)
The recent protests in Kazakhstan and the role Russia played in sending troops were also discussed. According to Lavrov, the West was “impressed with how quickly we can send troops”. He emphasized that he hoped that Russia will not have to send troops again soon to “avoid a war”, but that they are ready for anything. “If you want peace, you must prepare for war”.