Is it good to talk? A History of the West’s Summits with Russia | Russia


So The stakes for Europe’s future security architecture are high by Russia and the threat of war in Ukraine is so imminent that the three separate meetings held between Russia and the West this week compare to some of the big ones -Russian exchanges of the past, from Yalta in 1945 to Paris in 1960, on the future of Berlin, and from Reykjavík in 1986.

Vladimir Putin, with his keen sense of his place in Russian history, would probably welcome such comparisons. Indeed, the very scheduling of the three meetings – a bilateral security meeting with the United States on Monday, a rare NATO-Russian Council meeting on Wednesday, and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine on Thursday – is seen by some as a mistake.

Winston Churchill with Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin during the Yalta Accord talks in February 1945. The Accord was instrumental in the partition of Germany and the creation of the United Nations. Photograph: PA

Françoise Thom, historian of Russia based at the Sorbonne, said: “There is nothing more dangerous than these exchanges at the top which, whatever may be said, inevitably fuel either paranoia or the madness of grandeur. and the intoxication of power of the Russian ruling elites. If the West is firm, the Kremlin concludes that it wants to destroy Russia; if the west offers concessions, the Kremlin concludes that it is weak and that the pressure must be increased.

“Very often the best policy with Russia is one of silence and distance: do nothing, say nothing and hold on. Hanging on to dialogue at all costs, especially when Moscow is holding us up like a madman holding a hostage, only shows our weakness and encourages the Kremlin to escalate.

But Joe Biden clearly felt that with allied self-discipline and unity, the risks of being seen as rewarding Putin are outweighed by the need for dialogue and diplomatic recognition.

Not to speak would be to feed the Russian narrative that the West is not even ready to listen to. In addition, it is a dialogue and not a negotiation, according to the officials.

The specific agenda for each meeting next week is subtly different, and while the West will want the discussion to focus on Ukraine’s sovereignty and missile placement, Russia will want a response to its three formal demands spelled out last month in the draft treaties: the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, the withdrawal of NATO forces near Russian borders and the permanent legal renunciation of NATO membership for the Ukraine and Georgia, as part of a commitment to end NATO enlargement.

One way or another, these have been the enduring demands of the Russian political elite over the past 20 years. Putin’s demands are comparable to Dmitry Medvedev’s widely ignored European security treaty proposal in 2009, but this time the demands are presented in a more peremptory manner. Indeed, some Western officials fear they have been conditioned to be rejected.

Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel after a press conference in Deauville, France, in October 2010.
Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel after a press conference in Deauville, France, in October 2010. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos / EPA

In Ukraine, there are fears that the dialogue with Russia on the future security architecture of Europe, under the threat of blackmail and without a formal presence of the EU bloc, will be seen as a justification by Putin. From Putin’s point of view, he has already made progress and can do more. Russian think tanks like IMEMO say, for example, that the meeting shows that “the ice is already broken”.

It is the bread and butter of diplomacy to judge whether to “talk” – as Churchill put it – with an adversary either in the open or through a roundabout channel, or rather sit and wait. Never is this judgment more acute than in the case of Russia.

The assertion of the American Cold War diplomat George Kennan was that “Moscow is a special case”. He saw security “only in [a] patient but deadly struggle for the total destruction of [the] rival power, never in pacts and compromises with it ”. He said that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a master of the art of distorting American offers for dialogue, for example on the future of Berlin in April 1949, into a large-scale offer to redraw the map of the United States. Europe. The solution was patience and containment.

For a while, Henry Kissinger argued that the State Department was populated by naive men who believed that a well-constructed argument could persuade Russia. The whole idea of ​​signing treaties with Russia was to misunderstand the mentality. Russia, it has been said, operated by probing weaknesses, “kicking every door and seeing which ones fell off their hinges.”

Alexander Cadogan, the wartime permanent secretary of the British Foreign Office, made a similar remark in his diaries about the asymmetry in talks with Russia: “Everything favors the evildoer. Any honest government fights (in peacetime) with both hands tied behind its back. The brilliant shine of the Russians is something we can admire but cannot emulate. This gives them a great advantage.

In contrast, the instinct of most politicians is often to parley, or to seek a personal charm of reset or confidence. Churchill once said that all the world’s problems could be solved if only he could meet Joseph Stalin once a week. John F Kennedy argued that it is better to “meet at the top than at the edge of the abyss,” which the United States has attempted more regularly after the shock of the Cuban missile crisis. Famous during the Reykjavík Conference of 1986, a personal relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev brought them to the brink of abandoning nuclear weapons. George Shultz, US Secretary of State, recalled that in advance “there was a unique sense of uncertainty in the air … Nothing seemed to be predictable.” Gorbachev’s surprise plan, almost taken up by Reagan, showed the value of dialogue, though Margaret Thatcher later confided her despair over Reagan to Robin Butler, her cabinet secretary: “He doesn’t know anything, Robin.

Mikhail Gorbachev speaks with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavík during their summit meeting in October 1986.
Mikhail Gorbachev speaks with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavík during their summit meeting in October 1986. Photograph: Mike Sargent / AFP

Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush, no longer promised a chaotic Reykjavíks, but at a summit in Malta in 1989, the first meeting since the fall of the Berlin Wall, he too was captured by the sense of l ‘story of Gorbachev (“the United States and the USSR is doomed to cooperate for a long time”) and by his plea that “we must abandon the images of an enemy.” In reality, Gorbachev was betrayed during ‘a dinner the next evening in Brussels where Bush gave Chancellor Kohl the green light for the unification of Germany, opening the long controversy over the terms of NATO’s eastward expansion, starting with East Germany.

With Gorbachev crushed by events, the Bill and Boris show ensued. Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, charged with integrating Russia into the international system, have met face to face 18 times, often clashing with NATO expansion, leading Yeltsin to describe a cold peace. Perhaps the climax was the Birmingham summit in 1998, when relations were so intimate that they exchanged their respective confidential fact sheets. That relationship likely fell apart during a phone call of unchecked fury over the NATO bombing of Serbia a year later. He has shown that when fundamental interests conflict, as they did with NATO, personal relationships only get you to a point.

Afterwards, the era of two men sitting alone to solve the world was over. Barack Obama signed a new strategic arms control treaty, Start, in April 2010 with Medvedev, but Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 saw the reset fail.

Boris Yeltsin receives Bill Clinton at Yeltsin's residence during the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, England
Boris Yeltsin receives Bill Clinton at Yeltsin’s residence during the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, UK. Photograph: Tass / Getty Images

In essence, the dispute over the wisdom of dialogue boils down to whether Russia is seen to be driven by insecurity or imperial expansionism. In political terms, this meant choosing between a focus on arms control or NATO expansion.

But there’s also a professional diplomat’s aversion to large, unstructured gatherings, whether or not they involve Russia. Harold Nicolson, after a long diplomatic career, told the Commons in 1935: “It is a terrible mistake to conduct negotiations between foreign ministers… it is better to leave international negotiations to the professionals. Diplomacy is not the art of conversation. It is the art of exchanging documents in a carefully thought out and precise form and in such a way that they cannot be repudiated later … Conference diplomacy is a mistake.

The concern of the professional diplomat is that in the emotion of the moment the resolve dissipates and the predefined red lines are erased and allies betrayed.

With the Biden administration, this week’s talks are expected to be much more structured, predictable, and scripted. In theory, given that none of the main ones – Biden and Putin – will be in Geneva, there shouldn’t be a rush of blood to the head from men of goodwill, but rather a staking out of familiar positions.

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet for the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet for the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The US message, supported by the UK, has been carefully framed and appears to be well coordinated with Europe. NATO expansion was inherent in the Founding Act of NATO-Russia signed by Boris Yeltsin in 1997. No country can determine the foreign alliances of another country, as Russia agreed in the ‘Helsinki Final Act in 1975, and again in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. In the words of Sauli Niinistö, the Finnish President, in his landmark New Year speech: “Spheres of interest do not belong to 2020s. Sovereign equality of all States is the basic principle that everyone must respect.

But the test, according to Evelyn Farkas, former Deputy US Defense Secretary for Russia, will be whether Putin sees this week’s talks as a political play, a time to issue an ultimatum, or whether he sees this week’s talks as a political play. allow Russia to step into the weeds and start negotiating. Few people keep much hope for the latter.


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