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What Russia Wants: 4 Primary Demands

In Geneva, diplomats from the United States and Russia met for the first time over the Ukraine crisis. A Russian delegation was then met by NATO in Brussels. In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted discussions. Finally, last week in Geneva, the leading diplomats of the United States and Russia met for the second time.

Russia drew all of this attention by deploying 100,000 troops and military equipment along the Ukrainian border, posing a threat of a Russian invasion. Analysts see the escalation as a Russian attempt to persuade the US and its European allies to make concessions on a set of broad “security guarantees” which is what Russia wants to provide.

What Russia wants, and why is it so difficult for the US to meet Moscow halfway? Here’s a primer.

1. What Russia wants is an assurance that Ukraine would never be able to join NATO

Among Russia’s primary demands is a pledge from NATO to halt its expansion into former Soviet countries, particularly Ukraine, in the near future.

The pledge made by NATO in 2008 that Ukraine will one day join the defense alliance should be revoked, according to Russia’s demands. Because Ukraine does not match NATO’s membership qualifications, many analysts consider it as a distant possibility that it will be able to join the organization. Moscow, on the other hand, doesn’t see it that way.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the country’s lead negotiator, stated after bilateral discussions with the United States ended, “we don’t trust the other side.”

“We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances. Not safeguards. Guarantees. With all the words — ‘shall, must’ — everything that should be put in.”

What Russia Wants: 4 Primary Demands
Ukrainian military trainers interact with civilians during a military drill on the outskirts of Kyiv on February 5 during the 112th Territorial Defense Brigade. Because of the potential of invasion by Russia as they build forces near the border, the Ministry of Defense established defense brigades in Ukraine’s major cities.

Russia’s argument: As a component of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, Ukraine is considered an extension of what President Vladimir Putin refers to as “historical Russia,” which is now part of Moscow’s “sphere of influence.”

In 2014, when a social movement toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, the prospect of a westward swing was a motivating force behind Russia’s invasion of Crimea later that year. Russia’s funding of separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area sabotaged the Ukraine’s road to NATO membership by igniting a civil conflict, as a result of Ukraine’s ambition to join the Western alliance.

NATO’s counterargument: The United States contends that nations have the freedom to form their own alliances, and that NATO has a long-standing “open door policy” for potential members.

“NATO has never expanded through force or coercion or subversion. It is countries’ sovereign choice to choose to come to NATO and say they want to join,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said earlier this month during a meeting between Russian and NATO officials in Brussels.

According to opinion polls, Russian actions are making NATO membership more desirable to Ukrainians. Ukraine, on the other hand, is unlikely to meet the requirements in the near future.

2. What Russia wants is for NATO to withdraw its military equipment from Eastern Europe

Russia’s draft security measures, which were given to Western powers in December, would prohibit NATO from putting weapons and soldiers in Central and Eastern European nations that joined the security alliance after 1997.

In effect, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria would be demoted to symbolic membership at best.

Russia’s argument: Moscow regards NATO’s admission of former communist nations in Eastern and Central Europe beginning in 1997 as a breach of a key pledge made by the US when the Soviet army withdrew peacefully from Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

According to Putin, the West exploited Russian weakness by extending the alliance over several Russian protests.

“And where is it written down on paper?” Putin said, referring to NATO’s future moves to expand eastward.

“They would say to us. ‘It’s not on paper? Well then get lost along with your concerns.’ And that’s the way it’s been year after year.” Now, Putin appears to be acting as though Russia is in a position to impose new conditions — and rewrite the tale of the Cold War’s conclusion.

NATO’s counterargument: US officials have stated that they believe that Russia recognizes that this demand is unachievable. Accepting Russia’s plan would involve redrawing the geography of Europe after the Cold War, putting Moscow’s security needs ahead of the concerns of entire swathes of Europe that were formerly under Russian Soviet rule.

Western officials also refute the notion that the alliance agreed not to expand, claiming that Russian actions prompted NATO to strengthen up operations in new member nations. 

“NATO never even had any forces on its eastern edge because we didn’t feel the need to have troops close to Russia until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and led NATO members to be concerned that they might keep going into NATO territory,” Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said.

3. What Russia wants is for NATO missiles within striking distance to be banned

Russia seeks a ban on intermediate-range missiles in Europe, effectively resurrecting a Cold War-era pact that the Trump administration abandoned in 2019 after accusing Russia of repeated violations.

The Kremlin says it what Russia wants is to bundle weapons control advances with its other grievances against NATO expansion because it believes the Biden administration is open to a settlement. 

“Are we putting our rockets near the borders of the United States? No we’re not,” Putin replied to a Western journalist during a news conference in December. “It’s the U.S. with its rockets coming to our doorstep.”

Russia’s argument: Despite the fact that Ukraine is still a long way from joining NATO, Russia has been watching with interest as NATO has proved that it can expand its participation in Ukraine by sending weaponry and training without the former Soviet republic joining.

What Russia Wants: 4 Primary Demands
Map of Russia-Ukraine conflict

Russia’s president has made it clear that he foresee a day when NATO missiles may be stationed on Ukrainian land within striking distance of Moscow in the not-too-distant future.

Putin remarked, “For us this is a serious challenge — a challenge to our security.”

NATO’s counterargument: This might be a zone of compromise. To begin, several Democratic members criticized the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

4. What Russia wants is for Ukraine’s eastern region to have its own government

Russian officials said Ukraine must fulfill its commitments under the 2015 accords to halt the 15,000 people murdered in eastern Ukraine’s combat between the Ukrainian army and Russian-supported rebels who have been backed by Russia.

This peace pact, known as the Minsk Agreements, has stagnated, and Ukrainians are dying almost every week, but it has allowed Russia to maintain a big portion of the narrative that it is not involved in the Donbas war. In addition, the Minsk agreements would give the separatist Russian-speaking regions in the Donbas more autonomy than they already have.

Russia’s argument: Moscow has long assumed that the United States is in charge in Kyiv, and the United States has stated its support for the Minsk accords as a means of resolving the conflict. It’s also a method for Moscow to ensure the rights of Russian speakers in the Donbas — and give the Kremlin a foothold in future Ukrainian politics.

NATO’s counterargument: The United States, on the other hand, backs the Minsk agreements. More hesitant is Kyiv.  The agreement, as it stands now, rewards Russia for inciting the crisis, which Russia denies. Moscow, according to Kyiv and Washington, has also failed to fulfill the agreement’s responsibilities.

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