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Putin signals talks with US to go on as some drills end

Putin signals talks with US to go on as some drills end

4 min. 14.02.2022 From our online archive
Comments are strongest indications yet that Kremlin will continue talks to ease confrontation
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference last week
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference last week
Photo credit: AFP

President Vladimir Putin countered US warnings that Russia may invade Ukraine within days by staging televised meetings with his foreign and defence ministers that emphasised de-escalation of tensions and continued efforts to find a diplomatic resolution to the security crisis.

The comments were the strongest indications yet that the Kremlin will continue talks to ease confrontation in a crisis that’s raised fears of war in Europe. As recently as Sunday, US officials were warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine may be imminent, though Moscow dismissed that as “hysteria.” The West threatened Russia with severe economic sanctions if it did attack.

Speaking to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Monday, Putin said “all right” to a proposal that Russia continue talks with the US and its allies on the security guarantees Moscow has demanded.

Shortly afterward, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that some of Russia’s massive military exercises now underway are already concluded, while others will end later. He didn’t specify plans for returning the troops to their bases, but other officials have said they will go back once the operations are over.

The US has demanded Russia pull back some 130,000 troops it says Russia has massed near the border with Ukraine, many as part of the exercises Shoigu described. Moscow so far has rejected those appeals and called for the US and its allies to give sweeping security guarantees, including a ban on further expansion of NATO. 

The US ruled that out but offered talks on missile restrictions and measures to build confidence, steps that Lavrov described as “constructive.” He recommended to Putin to continue talks on those issues, while in parallel extending efforts to attain the broader security guarantees. Lavrov said Russia has drafted a 10-page response to the US and its allies on the proposals.

“This is a clear message - things are fine, let’s continue talking,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Our side is demonstrating strength but we’re not planning anything.”

Prices for oil and wheat, major Russian exports, turned lower after the news, having risen earlier on fears the crisis was worsening. The ruble extended gains after Lavrov’s remarks, jumping as much as 1.6% before trading up 0.4% at 76.89 as of 18.41 in Moscow. The benchmark stock index trimmed a loss of as much as 4% to trade 1.5% weaker.  

To be sure, Shoigu didn’t announce any pulling back of troops and there’s still no certainty that the the diplomatic efforts will do enough to assuage Kremlin fears about what it sees as threatening moves by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization toward its borders. Talks on implementing a peace deal in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has backed separatists since a 2014 war, remain stalled. Russia’s parliament is to consider a motion this week to call on Putin to recognize the breakaway quasi-states, a move that would complicate if not scuttle those discussions.

An important sign of whether the Kremlin is de-escalating will be whether some of the Russian troops pull back from the Ukraine border after the current joint exercises with Belarus end on 20 February, said Oksana Antonenko, director at Control Risks in London.

“We do not expect any rolling back of the military for at least another week,” she said. At the same time, “everyone is waiting to see if there will be any results” from the diplomatic efforts including the visit now underway to Kyiv and Moscow by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, she added.

Konstantin Kosachyov, first deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, wrote in Facebook that the exercises will conclude as planned and underlined that the “important message” from Putin’s meetings on Monday was that Russia is “ready to discuss” constructive proposals from the US and its allies.

After weeks of criticising the Western responses to its security demands as inadequate, Lavrov told Putin that there was still hope talks could yield a deal. Though the US and its allies have rejected Moscow’s main proposals as nonstarters, Lavrov said that the initial offers helped “shake up” Western capitals, prompting them to make offers on the missiles and other issues that Moscow had long sought.

When Putin asked him if he thought there was a chance of success, Lavrov said, “We are warning that endless conversations about issues that need to resolved today are unacceptable, but as the head of the Foreign Ministry, I must say there’s always a chance.”

Both Lavrov and Shoigu were shown sitting far down an otherwise empty long table from Putin. The Russian president often keeps visitors at a distance as a precaution against Covid-19; both ministers met in close proximity late last week with their British counterparts.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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