Ukraine Talks Stall As Conflict Escalates

Diplomatic efforts over the Ukrainian security crisis appear to have stalled, as Russian officials signaled that last week’s talks failed to ease tensions. With the US and NATO refusing to back down on ‘key elements’ of Moscow’s demands, the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said that discussions had reached ‘a dead end’.

This was not unexpected. Many commentators viewed the Russian demands – issued in two draft treaties last month – as “designed to fail,” with a breakdown in negotiations providing Moscow with a pretext for military action. Various treaty provisions were obvious non-starters. An important roadblock was the requirement that NATO would commit to no further enlargement of the alliance, in contravention of its long-standing “open-door policy.” Before the talks, Melissa Harding, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Centre at the Atlantic Council, had warned that negotiations might be just such a ploy: ‘If Russia insists that NATO cannot expand ever again, we will know that Moscow is preparing for war in Ukraine, since this is a red line for the West’.

Russia does not seem inclined towards conciliation. Recent remarks and events point towards escalating tensions. Last Friday, U.S. intelligence claimed that Russian operatives had infiltrated Eastern Ukraine to fabricate a pretext for invasion, possibly through a “false-flag” attack against Russian proxy forces or Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Meanwhile, in Russia, state and social media already seem to be fabricating Ukrainian provocations.

That same Friday, Ukraine was hit by a major cyber-attack that defaced the websites of various government agencies. This has now been attributed to Russia. Microsoft subsequently warned that it had detected highly destructive malware in dozens of government and private computer networks in Ukraine, ready to be triggered by an unknown actor and deployed as the diplomatic talks stalled. Ukraine has been a repeat target for Russian cyber-attacks since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. These attacks have hit electoral systems and critical infrastructure.

In response to Russian escalation, the US and its partners have threatened sanctions and insurgency. United States Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, has signaled that the administration is willing to fund and arm Ukrainian resistance, even citing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which the US supported the Mujahedeen in a costly insurgency against the Russians. Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, has promised a parallel program of punitive sanctions. ‘We’ve been clear with Russia about what it will face…including economic measures that we haven’t used before — massive consequences,’ Blinken explained to reporters at a recent press conference.

Whether these policies will prove an effective deterrent remains another question. As Cynthia Roberts, a professor of political science at Hunter College, notes ‘sanctions have a very poor coercive track record.’ The US previously attempted to sanction Russia over the annexation of Ukraine, seeking to cause enough economic damage to compel withdrawal; additional measures were imposed following election interference in 2016 and the SolarWinds cyber-attack in 2020. Despite these efforts, Russia again seems poised to invade Ukraine and continues to engage in cyber-warfare. When asked by the New York Times whether there was any evidence that Russia had been deterred by previous sanctions, one senior aide within the Biden administration replied: ‘No, none.’

U.S. officials have promised that any new sanctions will be far more impactful than their predecessors. They are to be directed against the largest Russian financial institutions instead of small banks and military commanders. However, Russian counter-measures should not be imagined as static either. Since 2014, Moscow has carried out a concerted campaign to “sanction proof” its economy – stockpiling billions in gold and dollar reserves. Sanctions would hurt Russia, but they may not deter Putin.

As economic stagnation, corruption and the mishandling of COVID have eroded public support for Putin in Russia, the Kremlin may be looking at the crisis in Ukraine as a means to bolster the regime. The annexation of Crimea was followed by a significant boost in approval ratings, and the narrative of an embattled nation might prompt the Russian people to put aside their grievances.

The crisis must be approached carefully. Without foreign powers trading on Ukrainian sovereignty, every effort must be made to further a diplomatic solution. Moscow will hardly back down unless it is given an “out.” However, the Kremlin may have already decided against negotiations, leaving conflict as an inevitable outcome.