Brussels, Belgium – Foreign policy experts had waited expectantly during this past week, as US and NATO officials met their Russian counterparts to discuss averting the crisis over Ukraine.
Dubbed as critical for geopolitics, three high-stakes meetings were held in European cities, following on from last month’s talks between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
At Wednesday’s NATO -Russia Council meeting, which convened after more than two years in Brussels, officials spoke of the importance of dialogue for disarmament and missile deployments.
But addressing journalists at a press conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on these issues. Our differences will not be easy to bridge.”
Despite massing troops at its border with Ukraine, Moscow refuses allegations from Kyiv and Western powers that it is planning an invasion. The Kremlin instead blames NATO for undermining the region’s security and has sent a wish-list of security demands to Washington – most of which have already been slammed as “non-starters”.
Primarily, Russia wants NATO and its allies to ban Ukraine and former Soviet nations from joining the alliance.
It has also called on NATO to scale back activities in Eastern Europe.
Fabrice Pothier, a strategy officer at policy group Rasmussen Global, named after its founder, the former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said negotiating with the Kremlin has always been challenging for the alliance.
“It’s very difficult for NATO to do anything which does not protect its own interests and values, obviously starting with the territorial integrity of its allies,” he told Al Jazeera.
“NATO can compromise on transparency, how its allies inform each other about military exercises and on positioning certain sensitive weapons systems along borders. But beyond that, NATO will never budge.”
The Western-led push for diplomacy gathered pace after approximately 100,000 Russian troops were spotted along the Ukraine-Russia border at the end of last year.
As well as the NATO event in Brussels, US and Russian officials discussed the crisis on Monday in Geneva and the week ended in Vienna, with a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest security body.
After the NATO-Russia Council meeting, Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman bemoaned that there was “no commitment to de-escalation.”
She added that Russia might not yet be prepared on how to proceed.
But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said that Moscow has made it clear to NATO members that the situation has become “intolerable for Russia.”
At a press conference in Brussels, Grushko condemned NATO’s expansion in Eastern European countries.
“The expansion does not resolve the issue of security. The expansion just moves the division lines, not removes them,” he said.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also adopted a tough tone, saying he had run out of patience, and that NATO and the US should respond to its demand in days.
Oleg Ignatov, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Russia, said Washington and the West cannot reach common ground with Russia because they do not understand the logic behind Russian proposals.
“Russia wants to see Ukraine not as a neutral country, but more like a friendly country,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that Ukraine was not the only issue of importance for the Kremlin
“This is also about how Russia wants to position itself in the world. So this is a geopolitical conflict focusing on Russia’s posture and vision,” he added.
Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau and OSCE chairperson kicked off Thursday’s meeting in Austria by saying that the risk of war in the OSCE area was now greater than ever before in the last 30 years.
Speaking to the Russian TV channel Dozhd, Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the OSCE said: “I don’t think there will be any concrete results this week. Our main goal is, in principle, to establish a dialogue.”
As the week ended without a breakthrough solution, Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, said that NATO and the West’s support will be key in preserving the country’s sovereignty.
“If we consider just Ukraine and Russia, of course, Russia is more powerful. But with support from NATO, our Western allies and our own efforts, we have been able to plot out a path of deterrence and resilience,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Ivana Stradner, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, working on Russia and cybersecurity, explained that while NATO has expanded its presence in Ukraine and other Eastern and Central European countries after the Cold War, today’s threats are different.
“Russia has been waging an advanced form of hybrid warfare in Ukraine and Moscow has also been launching disinformation campaigns across Europe,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The strength of NATO should be measured by how successfully it can counter Russia in the grey zone. Hybrid warfare deterrence is not an easy task but NATO should deploy its Counter Hybrid Support Teams in Eastern Europe.”
While the crisis is taking place on European soil, some EU diplomats say they are being sidelined when big decisions are made over Ukraine.
“There is no security in Europe without the security of Ukraine. And it is clear that any discussion on European security must involve the EU and Ukraine,” Josep Borrell, the bloc’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told journalists after visiting Ukraine’s front line in early January.
Member of the European Parliament Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel said the EU’s weak presence in the talks comes as no surprise.
“The problem with the EU is not that it is actively taking a back seat, but that we still do not have a coherent and unified foreign policy towards Russia. Some EU nations are choosing to be neutral towards Russia. This results in delayed statements coming from our side, which I regret,” she told Al Jazeera.
Looking ahead, Ignatov said people in the front-line zone remain in danger.
“People along the border don’t think about geopolitics. Ending the war is their priority. Unfortunately, they don’t have a voice on the diplomatic table. Their interests need to be catered to immediately,” he told Al Jazeera.
Stradner added that while the EU, US and NATO are keen to continue talking to Russia, “Western leaders often display strong words backed by weak actions. The ‘dialogue-fixes-all approach’ has never worked in Russia and won’t work now.”