With Foreign Secretary Liz Truss currently in talks with her Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; the question must be asked, can the UK, and the West more broadly, achieve a non-violent means of solution, or is a continued diplomatic stalemate and the prospect of armed conflict here to stay?
Even as Truss touched down in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry placed constraints on the ongoing discussions with a statement, suggesting that (as the Guardian reported): “without a clear change in the tone of the speeches of representatives of the British leadership, productive interaction is impossible either in solving bilateral problems or in settling international problems”. This statement came as Boris Johnson made statements in Parliament pointedly declaring that a Russian invasion would mean “many Russian Mothers’ sons will not be coming home”.
Since then, with talks underway, the situation has seemed to deteriorate yet further, with Lavrov stating that (as reported by the BBC): “It’s like we’re listening, but not hearing each other, so our very detailed explanation fell on deaf ears”, going further to brand the first day of talks as “disappointing”. This grim assessment stems from what Vladimir Putin feels is the West’s refusal to acknowledge Russia’s demands, namely that the Ukraine be formally barred from joining Nato, and additionally that the West reduce its presence in Eastern Europe more generally. On this subject it seems Russia and the West stand directly at odds, Nato holding firm on their ‘open-door’ policy, allowing any European nation to join if it so wishes.
Russia’s motivation for its insistence on this point has been explained over recent weeks with statements pointing towards a security concern over the possibility of Ukraine joining Nato. The crucial issue at stake being Russia’s relatively recent annexation of the Crimea in 2014. With Nato membership as backing, Russia alleges Ukraine may try and take back their lost territory with Putin arguing that (as reported by the Guardian): “no one should strengthen their security at the expense of other countries”.
Now, turning back to Russo-UK relations specifically, as Truss and Lavrov continue their talks with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace set to travel to Moscow later this week, both secretaries have recently been bolstered by Parliament passing legislation signed by Minster-for-Europe James Cleverly broadening sanction powers in order to target Russian state-linked companies. Russian ambassador to the UK, Andrey Kelin, has made Russia’s stance on these sanctions abundantly clear, stating that (as reported by Tass): “If they’re coming to Russia to threaten us again with sanctions then it is fairly pointless: we read everything, see everything, know and hear”. In this case, the dialogue and conversation in Moscow will be probably fairly short.”
However, despite these almost insurmountable constraints on diplomacy and consequently progress towards a solution, Russia’s EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov has said that (as the BBC reports): “We certainly believe there is still room for diplomacy”. However, as we have seen for Russia, this ‘room’ for diplomacy may only be reachable through capitulation to their previous demands, a route that seems diametrically opposed to the UK and the West’s current stance, not only concerning Ukraine but the world at large.
With this apparent stalemate between the UK and Russia over Ukraine it seems a diplomatic resolution is unlikely to be achieved. On top of this, Russia seems intent on showcasing its power, beginning to conduct a ten-day joint military exercise with Belarus, which, as Al Jazeera reports is designed “to simulate an attack from a nearby Nato country”. In addition to this blatantly “escalatory” move from Russia, as branded by the US (reported by the BBC) a further worry lurks beneath the surface. With the exercises taking place in Belarus, whose border lies just 150 kilometres north of Kyiv, experts fear that the exercises could be used as a ploy to conceal a real invasion attempt. Although seeming relatively fanciful at first glance, it’s worth noting that a similar covert military exercise was conducted just prior to the very real annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
With this in mind it seems likely the ongoing talks between the UK and Russia face a mighty uphill struggle if a diplomatic solution is to be reached. Russia seems intent on sticking to its previous demands towards Nato and the West and appears unwilling to negotiate under the potential threat of sanctions put forward by Parliament through Liz Truss and Ben Wallace. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has stated that although neither the UK nor Nato would intervene if Ukraine was invaded, he regarded arming an insurgency against Russia if Ukraine’s capital Kyiv were to fall as a possibility, stating (as reported by the Guardian): “It’s possible, I don’t want to rule this out”. Furthermore, Johnson has recently revealed that the UK is now sending “troops, planes, and ships” (as reported by ITV) to several European nations in an effort to protect Nato and its members under these increasing tensions with Russia.
As we can see, it will take serious compromise from one or both sides of this burgeoning conflict to reach a viable diplomatic off-ramp in order to avoid armed conflict. However, as it currently stands, it seems neither side is willing to forgo an inch, presenting at the least an arduous stalemate, and at the worst, a very real prospect of war on the Eastern Front.