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14 January 2022, Friday | NIAS Europe Daily Brief #98

Geneva Talks: Three Takeaways

US Senate fails to pass Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill; Czech Republic's government win the customary vote of confidence; US diplomats infected with Havana Syndrome


By Joeana Cera Matthews

Geneva Talks: Three Takeaways

On 10 January, top US and Russian diplomats met in Geneva under the Strategic Security Dialogue initiative. The US was represented by the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman while Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov negotiated on Russia’s behalf. The bilateral meeting occurred during one of the tensest situations in East-West relations since the Cold War period. Nonetheless, the seven hour-long discussions did not see substantive breakthroughs. The inconclusive meeting came to an end with the parties hoping to maintain an open channel of communication. 

What did they discuss?

Although there was a substantial deviation from set agendas, given the media frenzy over the Russian military build-up along the Ukrainian borders, the primary intent behind the talks was to discuss arms control measures. Along these lines, the US proposed the prospect of reciprocal agreements on missile deployments while putting a cap on the size and range of military exercises. The US expressed its interest in discussing a return to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after withdrawing from the same in August 2019. However, the larger potential of the initial structure was lost in an attempt to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine. The Russian security proposal, essentially a list of demands that both the US and NATO were presented with, was also discussed during the meeting. 


First, the inconclusive talks. Despite the detour, the meeting between the US and Russian delegations was a beacon of hope for Ukrainians and the larger international community. The two superpowers talking to each other in a direct manner was bound to bring a substantial change in the status quo favouring de-escalation. However, the “frank and forthright” talks, as Sherman put it, were disappointing. Concerning the de-escalation of the troop build-up by Moscow, she said: “I don't think we know the answer to that. We made it very clear that it's very hard to have constructive, productive and successful diplomacy without de-escalation.” The uncertainty voiced by Sherman was too hard to miss.

Second, the lack of commitments. Recognizing the US’ need for diplomacy, the Kremlin conducted talks concluding in no concessions from either side. The US was extremely disappointed with the Russian delegation neither committing to a de-escalation nor verbally assuring the same. As is the larger consensus, it seemed as though Russia was prepared to declare the negotiations a failure, even before the talks began. The calls for continued talks implies a protracted process; although the Kremlin agreed to this, they foresaw such an outcome and had stated they would choose to ‘act’ instead of ‘talk’, essentially avoiding prolonged talks.  

Third, principles to stay. The Russian demands to stop NATO’s eastward expansion and defy membership to Ukraine were outrightly rejected by Sherman on the grounds that it went against NATO’s “open-door policy”. Ryabkov responded with: “Unfortunately we have a great disparity in our principled approaches to this. The U.S. and Russia in some ways have opposite views on what needs to be done.” Bridging this gap will be an uphill climb.

What does it mean?

First, the open channel of communication. This essentially indicates a delay in escalation. As the US Information and Cybersecurity Expert Dmitri Alperovitch opined: “I think it's a very positive development because it could mean that we can go into potentially prolonged discussion… we would avoid war, so that I view as the best outcome that we could get out of the situation is to simply delay buy time for diplomacy to work.” 

Second, escalation threats. Despite the efforts at diplomacy, one stands to see whether the Kremlin would engage and escalate tensions along the Ukrainian periphery. The contradictory statements emerging from the Putin administration are confusing — threats have been issued alongside reassurances of “no intent to invade”. There is no doubt, however, that the Kremlin wants the West out of its “sphere of influence”. 


Jennifer Rankin, Luke Harding and Julian Borger, Nato chief warns of 'real risk of conflict' as talks with Russia over Ukraine end,” The Guardian, 12 January 2022.

Ukraine tensions: US says Russia faces stark choice,” BBC, 12 January 2022.

Emma Farge, “US and Russia still far apart on Ukraine after Geneva talks,” Reuters, 11 January 2022.

Russia and US hold tense talks on Ukraine crisis,” Deutsche Welle. 10 January 2022.


By Padmashree Anandhan and Ashwin Dhanabalan 


Ruling government wins customary vote of confidence 

On 13 January, Euronews reported: "The Czech Republic's new conservative-led government won a vote of confidence in the lower house of parliament on Thursday in a mandatory ballot that every administration must win to govern." The three-party liberal-conservative coalition called "Together" came first with a 27.8 percent vote share and joined two other parties of the center-left liberal coalition to form the government. The winning alliance comprises the Civic Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats, and the TOP 09 party, who formed a larger coalition with Pirate Party and STAN. As cited by Reuters: "The new five-party ruling coalition won a combined 108 seats in the 200-member lower chamber, making it certain to win the confidence vote called after it took office last month." The opposition party ANO of former Prime Minister Andrej Babis lost the vote by a small margin of 27.1 percent of the vote share. ("New Czech governing coalition wins confidence vote," Euronews, 13 January 2022; "Czech lawmakers interrupt marathon debate over government confidence," Reuters, 13 January 2022)


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urges for continued dialogue with Moscow

On 13 January, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz commented on the ongoing talks between Russia, the United States, NATO and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Scholz urged for a “continued dialogue” with Moscow and said that engaging in any kind of military activity would be a costly affair for Russia, Ukraine and the US. He said: “We are very happy that soon the negotiators from all four sides will also meet again to start preparatory talks for this.” On the same day, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on the West to hold a strong stance against Russia and urged for unity amongst the European states for the Ukraine issue. She said: “If we Europeans are united and whole, then we can play our role in the different formats very, very strongly, a role that relies on toughness, but also on dialogue.” (“Germany sees need for toughness with Russia after European security talks,” BBC, 13 January 2022)


Prince Andrew gives up patronages and affiliations to fight sexual abuse allegations

On 13 January, Britain's Prince Andrew announced that he would be returning all his patronages and military affiliations as he prepares to fight a sexual abuse case against him. Buckingham Palace released a statement, saying: "The Duke of York will continue not to undertake any public duties and is defending this case as a private citizen." The palace also mentioned Prince Andrew to have taken this step "with the Queen's approval and agreement". As cited by Euronews: "Queen Elizabeth's third child is being accused by Virginia Guiffre of sexually abusing her in 2001 when she was 17 and being trafficked by the late financier Jeffrey Epstein." She had launched legal proceedings against the Prince in August 2020, and the recent ruling by a US judge rejected his attempt to dismiss the case against him. ("Prince Andrew returns military affiliations and patronages as he prepares to fight sexual abuse case," Euronews, 13 January 2022; Ben Quinn and Caroline Davies, "Prince Andrew loses military roles and use of HRH title," The Guardian, 13 January 2022)


US Senate fails to pass Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill

On 13 January, the US Senate failed to pass a bill to impose sanctions on Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. As reported by Reuters: "The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass, a major hurdle in the 50-50 Senate. The vote spanned nearly seven hours as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer considered options on voting rights legislation." On the failure of not being able to pass the sanctions, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said: "Only immediately imposing sanctions can change Putin's calculation, stop a Ukrainian invasion, and lift the existential threat posed by Nord Stream 2." The recent bill was part of a more extensive set of White House-backed sanctions against Russia that were to be implemented if Moscow decided to invade Ukraine. On 12 January, other possible sanctions discussed by the Senate included those on Russian military heads, Russian President Vladimir Putin, political leaders, and financial institutions. (Timothy Gardner and Richard Cowan, "Cruz's Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill fails in US Senate," Reuters, 13 January 2022; Callie Patteson, "Senate to debate dueling Russia sanctions in case of Ukraine invasion," New York Post, 12 January 2022)


US diplomats working in Geneva and Paris infected with Havana Syndrome

On 13 January, four US diplomats operating in Geneva and Paris were identified with a certain neurological illness termed the ‘Havana Syndrome’. The syndrome, first found in 2016 in Cuba, has affected those diplomats, spies and Canadian staff working in Cuba. According to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the US government is currently investigating the source of the illness. In a recent interview, Blinken said that he was going around the world to meet the employees of the State Department to study how the illness was disrupting their lives. He said: “To date, we don't know exactly what's happened and we don't know exactly who is responsible. We are working overtime across the entire government to get to the bottom of what happened, who's responsible.” (“'Havana syndrome': US baffled after new cases in Europe,” BBC, 13 January 2022)

Ongoing rounds of Russia-West talks show no progress

On 14 January, the talks conducted by the West on Ukraine from Geneva to Brussels and finally the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna came to an end. The talks brought out the grievances and concerns of both sides regarding Ukraine. However, the talks showed no progress as Russia had provided no assurances of withdrawing its forces from the Ukrainian border. According to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: “The main problem is the US and its NATO allies are not prepared under any guise, for any reason, which we have discussed and analyzed over and over, to meet our key demands to NATO.” (Paul Adams, “Ukraine crisis: Risks remain as Russia and West talk,” BBC, 14 January 2022)

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