As the world continues to watch the swirl of energy that orbits around Ukraine, statements from the United States, Russia, and Ukraine express vastly different narratives. Each faction paints a different interpretation of events.
The United States focuses on Russia's positioning of over 100,000 troops in Crimea, Belarus, and Russia hemming Ukraine in on three sides. The drumbeat is to emphasize the question: If they don't intend to invade, why are they there? UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in her interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC:
“Why would you put 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine if you had no intention of invading that country? And it's more than 100,000. They put an additional 30,000 in Belarus. So it is up to them to explain what their troops are doing and what their intentions are.”
The Biden Administration is harping on this fact as the basis for taking over the confrontation with Vladimir Putin building up a coalition of military responses in neighboring countries west of Ukraine and economic sanctions against Russia to compel Putin to withdraw his army from the borders of Ukraine.
Russia, on the other hand, is focusing on the West not being responsive to addressing its long-time demands about being uncomfortable with the eastward encroachment of NATO into independent states of the former Soviet Union.
Putin wants a guarantee from the West that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO. The US and EU have replied that's a non-starter because, in the long run, it's up to the right of self-determination of Ukraine to choose their future.
Putin doesn't agree that they should have such a choice and continues to position troops on the border hoping to coerce the West into dashing Ukrainian hopes, thus presumably tipping the balance of sentiment in the former Soviet state to rejoin the motherland.
In the center of the donut hole, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has chosen to take a page from Douglas Adam's “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” and take the position of refusing to panic about having a new Cold War ramping up around his nation.
Ukraine's position is that the Russians have been around in bulk ever since taking Crimea and, despite the large numbers of Russian troops, nothing has really changed since 2014. The Russians are still posturing about wanting NATO to declare it has halted its march to the east and Ukraine doesn't see that being settled anytime soon, so no need to panic.
The Ukrainian stance has proven to be a bit awkward for the United States because the country in need of saving is telegraphing, they aren't the target of Russia's actual power and policy demands with the West. The Ukrainian's seem to believe they are more of a convenient lens through which Putin is asking the West his question.
Zelensky does have a point, provided Putin doesn't decide at some point that he's done with playing around and it's time to halt the encroachment of NATO by having his troops on the actual borders with NATO, which are on the west side of Ukraine.
Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged the awkwardness in her remarks:
“I can't speak for the president of Ukraine. What I can say is that we have had intense discussions with the Ukrainian government, with President Zelensky, with the foreign minister. I have met with the Ukrainian ambassador here in New York, who was present at our meeting yesterday, requested the meeting in writing, and made a strong, strong appeal to the Security Council in that meeting. So, I think we're on the same sheet of music in terms of what we're seeing. Our narrative is different. Our rhetoric is a little different.”
For Now, Talking for Talking Sake
Thomas-Greenfield noted in her interview that no one has really made any decision to actively listen to anyone. For now, officials are happy to be having talks. She expresses a willingness to talk but clearly, actual talk isn't happening yet. It's all about posturing for the time being.
“Our meeting at the Security Council yesterday, we were very pleased to have that meeting, and to get the Russians on record on what they are doing in Ukraine and have them hear from a unified council our recommendation, our push for them to pursue a diplomatic solution. And we have also made clear to the Russians that we're willing to sit down and talk to them about their security concerns. We are willing to also address Ukraine's security concerns. They have 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. NATO does not have those kinds of forces. NATO is a defensive force. But we're willing to discuss with them the security concerns that they have.”
As to escalating the tension, there are really two ways to do that. Russia could invade Ukraine, or the US could impose sanctions on Russia. Either move on the chessboard creates a new Cold War. Other than that, it's a lot of noisy status quo.
I'm very curious to see where the rest of Europe weighs in as this continues to evolve. Zelensky could very well be right that no one really wants to invade his country because the real heartburn of Russia about NATO sits on the western border of his country. He's the “neutral zone.” The question in my mind is how many other European countries would be happy with that? Could Ukraine not be barred from NATO but also not apply for NATO membership? In exchange for what from the West? In exchange for what from Russia? Will that start a trend where other NATO members might want to become neutrals, too? Germany? Turkey? Anyone else for whom English is a second language?
One thing is certain, the longer diplomacy embroils the process in talks, the greater the number of alternative outcomes become available.