Amid the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, multiple U.S. and defense officials have told the press that the Biden administration is in the final stages of selecting military units for deployment to Eastern Europe. The U.S. accuses Russia of planning to invade Ukraine, despite threats of heavy reprisals, while Moscow insists on guarantees that there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO.
But despite this bellicose development, reading between the lines of the Jan. 21 meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland, suggests that there will be no war.
From the outset Lavrov said he did not expect “a breakthrough,” while for his part Blinken pledged a “united, rapid and severe” response if an invasion does take place. Moscow is also calling for the withdrawal of foreign NATO troops and nuclear missiles from former Warsaw Pact member-states. The U.S. will present a formal written response to those demands next week, but it is unlikely to accept them.
The two sides have agreed, however, to continue the talks after Washington’s response is delivered. This is an encouraging development since no further high-level meetings had been on the agenda before the meeting in Geneva. Blinken suggested the creation of a framework for deescalation, while Lavrov did not exclude the possibility of a summit meeting between presidents Biden and Putin, albeit after thorough preparation.
There was another potentially positive development. After the talks Blinken said that he also discussed Iran with Mr. Lavrov, warning there was only a brief window to bring talks to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to a successful conclusion. Interestingly, he added that the deal was an example of how Moscow and Washington can work together on security issues and urged Russia to use its influence and relationship with Iran to impress upon Tehran the sense of urgency. It is not common in diplomatic talks between intransigent adversaries to suggest some areas of joint action on security issues which fall outside the main focus of the talks.
The possibility of a softer line from Washington was also apparent in President Biden’s remarkable statement during the long press conference on Jan. 19. He had predicted Russia would move against Ukraine, but suggested there was a split within NATO on how to respond if Moscow took action that stopped short of an all-out invasion.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion,” Biden said, “and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do.” Of course, he was only stating the obvious, but his frankness was stunning. The White House spent the following two days trying to clear up this remark, insisting that there was no change in its resolve to deter Russia and keep the Alliance united.
There is no monolithic Western front against Putin, however. Speaking in Strasbourg also on Jan. 19, French President Emmanuel Macron called on the European Union to quickly draw up a new security plan containing proposals to help ease tensions with Russia. The EU must in coming weeks “complete a European proposal building a new security and stability order,” Macron said. “We should build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in the framework of NATO, and then propose it for negotiation to Russia.” The French leader pitched his initiative as “a vital need for Europe to affirm its sovereignty.”
Students of modern European history will easily detect in Macron’s words an echo of his larger-than-life predecessor at the Élysée Palace, Charles De Gaulle, who stated at the height of the Cold War in 1959 that “it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals . . . which will decide the fate of the world.” De Gaulle never doubted that the Russians were Europeans and considered them to be Western, since he considered Europe to be the true West. He always spoke of “Russia” and not the Soviet Union, viewing regimes as temporary, but nations as permanent. He also withdrew France from the military structure of NATO in 1966.
There are several EU member states which are likely to welcome Macron’s initiative, including Hungary, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, and Spain, but France needs to take resolute unilateral action to make the European voice more clearly articulated. Relying on the clumsy, slow EU machinery in Brussels to do so would lead nowhere, not least because assorted leftist Russophobes like German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock would sabotage any such attempt. Macron can and should say that he opposes Ukraine’s bid to join NATO both because it would deeply destabilize the whole of Europe and because it would lastingly demolish the vision—still possible—of the Old Continent, safe and stable from the Atlantic to the Urals.
Macron’s call for a distinct European position, coupled with Biden’s possibly unintended admission of Western disunity, may at last prompt Blinken and other policymakers at the Department of State and the White House—not to mention the Republican hawks on the Hill—to step back from the brink of further escalation. In Geneva on Jan. 21, we saw at least a hint that this may happen. It would reduce the danger of a catastrophic war over a piece of Eastern Europe which does not have the slightest bearing on the security and well-being of the American people.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Flickr-GPA Photo Archive, Public Domain) and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov(Flickr-МИД России, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)