Russia-West: How Can We Fix ‘the Most Fateful Error in the Entire Post-Cold War Era’?
Valdai Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On January 19, 2022, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion dedicated to consultations between representatives of Russia and the West on security guarantees in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, titled “A Three-Move Game: Will It Be Possible to Avoid Zugzwang?” The discussion was moderated by Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, who leads the Russian delegation at the talks on security guarantees, called the European security situation critical and stressed that it was the fault of Washington and NATO that it had become like this. Speaking about the talks with the United States, NATO and the OSCE, he noted that they’d allowed for a better understanding of each other’s approaches and positions, but added that Russia would prefer to negotiate primarily with the Americans, because involving a too-wide range of countries in negotiations seems counterproductive. The diplomat pointed out that the Russian proposals imply the imperative nature of the legally binding guarantees that NATO won’t expand, won’t deploy strike weapons near the borders of Russia, and will return the alliance’s forces to their positioning in 1997. According to him, the other side had declared its fundamental rejection of the first requirement and negatively perceived the third one.

“Practical progress in the areas of interest to us was determined by the American side by strict adherence to the principle of reciprocity, the obligatory participation of US allies and partners in resolving issues affecting their interests, as well as our adoption of measures for the so-called de-escalation,” Ryabkov said. He added that at the same time, the Americans had expressed their readiness to work on the issue of strategic stability on a bilateral basis, including in the area of new agreements to replace the START Treaty. “We are not ready to wait indefinitely, we are not ready to plunge into the usual diplomatic and bureaucratic mess ... We need a direct and understandable answer, and in writing,” Ryabkov summed up. “The ball is now clearly on the side of the United States — it was its assertive course that led to the current situation.”

John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, explained why, in his opinion, the crisis in relations between Russia and the United States will continue to worsen. He identified what he called Washington’s decision in 2008 to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on the border with Russia as the cause of the crisis. According to him, now the Biden administration continues this path. He noted that the United States insists on the sovereign right of Ukraine to join NATO, but would not tolerate a similar situation in its hemisphere. The US does not recognise the right to its own “Monroe Doctrine” for Russia. “The behaviour of the United States reminds me of the famous words of Talleyrand: “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” Mearsheimer said.

He admitted that the United States is unlikely to be able to win this confrontation in the long run, since Ukraine is more important for Moscow than for Washington, but at the same time the Biden administration, most likely, will not compromise with Russia in the near future. This, according to him, is due to Russophobia and the black-and-white worldview of American politicians, the idea of Ukraine’s right to join NATO, which is rooted in Western thinking, the domestic political unacceptability of agreements with Russia for President Biden, and fears that China will follow Russia’s example. In conclusion, the political scientist recalled the words of the famous American diplomat George Kennan, who called NATO expansion “the most fateful error in the entire post-Cold War era”.

Malcolm Rifkind, former UK Secretary of Defence and Foreign Secretary, agreed with Kennan’s statement, but explained NATO expansion as the only way to ensure the security of countries “east of Germany” and their territorial integrity. He supported the current policy of the West, but pointed out that the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO would be a big mistake, because Britain, France, Germany and the United States are unlikely to be ready to fight against Russia because of what is happening in Ukraine. “We do not need to accept new countries if we are not ready to defend their territories in case of attack,” he said. In his opinion, another approach could be productive if Ukraine would independently decide on its neutrality, as Austria did in its time, and Russia, in response, “would refuse to interfere in its internal affairs” and agree with the “reintegration” of Donbass.