The tensions with Russia over Ukraine are said to be at their most dangerous since the end of the Cold War. Talks with Russia are ongoing in various forms. However, there are no results, and no prospects of any breakthrough.

One of the negotiators, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, said on Thursday Washington’s rejection of Moscow’s key security demands was leading talks to a dead end. Reportedly, Russian military specialists are giving President Vladimir Putin “options” in case the situation around Ukraine worsens.

This obviously means military options.

The bottom line is that Russia has demands the West cannot accept: To promise that there will be no further NATO enlargement (at a time when even the neutral Western countries such as Finland or Sweden are warming up to the idea of membership), and to withdraw troops and armaments from Eastern Europe.

The Kremlin sent 100.000 troops to the Ukrainian border for a purpose. One of their goals was achieved: the talks are ongoing. Having the talks is, in itself, half a victory for the Kremlin. But it doesn’t seem realistic that the Kremlin would accept leaving the talks empty-handed.

The West is not sure how far Putin could go. It’s not in his interest to invade Ukraine, because the sanctions would be a heavy price to pay. The recent protests in Kazakhstan possibly suggest to Putin that he, too, could face dangerous internal unrest.

Until now Russia has used what it calls “provocations” to invade, as in Georgia in 2008. The internal situation in Ukraine, which is described as a ‘mess’ by authoritative local journalists, is conducive to dangerous situations. But again, even with a good excuse, Russia might achieve its military objective, but would not avoid sanctions.

Knowing that the Russian diplomats are well-trained as negotiators, obviously, the stakes are somewhere else.  In diplomacy, you often ask for something to obtain something else.

Possibly Russia is raising the stakes at bilateral talks with the US, and at multilateral talks at NATO and the OSCE, to achieve results in another format.

Our educated guess is that this is the Normandy format, gathering the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. For Russia, this is comfortable ground for a number of reasons.

First, Germany is by default eager to appease Russia. Second, Emmanuel Macron is following the Gaullist tradition of Russophilia. Third, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is, diplomatically, a lightweight. Fourth, Russia knows how to pull strings in Ukraine and create distractions.

It is not in the interest of Russia to plant its flag on Donbas. But it’s certainly in Moscow’s interest that the Minsk II agreement, concluded in 2015, is implemented and that elections are held in Donbas. Such elections are most likely going to change the internal political landscape of Ukraine. And Russia would achieve its political goals without firing a shot.

So forget about the talks in Vienna, better look toward the next Normandy format meeting under the French Presidency. It is not scheduled yet, but that could happen soon.

The Roundup

A Russia-led military bloc began pulling its troops out of Kazakhstan on Thursday after a week-long deployment during the worst bout of unrest in the Central Asian nation’s post-Soviet history. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asked for assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) last week after initially peaceful protests, triggered by a sharp increase in car fuel prices, turned violent in many big cities.

The EU’s role in an anti–jihadist defence and security mission in the Sahel region is under increasing threat as relations with the military government in Mali continue to decline over delayed elections and the presence of Russian mercenaries, EU officials conceded on Thursday.

Following a letter from thirty EU lawmakers, the European Commission appeared to stand by its embattled enlargement chief on Thursday and the statements issued after allegations were made in December that he had indirectly contributed to secessionist moves of Bosnian Serbs.

Yannick Jadot, the Green party candidate in the French presidential elections, has put Europe at the core of his presidential project. While this comes as no surprise, seducing the not-so- pro-EU French electorate with such an approach will be difficult. EURACTIV France reports.

The EU needs to reflect on current mechanisms, legislation, and processes, and the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) will not fail, a senior French official has said in a rare show of support for the fledgling democratic exercise.

Fossil gas should be excluded from Europe’s list of sustainable investments, according to a group of climate investors with €50 trillion worth of assets. The group added it was still considering whether to consider nuclear as a sustainable investment.

Meanwhile, European auto parts makers are undermining efforts to decarbonise the transport sector by lobbying against climate-friendly EU policies, a new analysis by the climate think tank InfluenceMap has claimed.

In other news, cases of Legionnaires’ disease reported to the French health agency Santé Publique France decreased in 2020, confirming a downward trend evident over previous years

Germany’s legal framework for using plant protection products has significant shortcomings, the conclusions of a report by an alliance of various associations shows. Pesticide use worldwide has increased 80% since 1990, according to the Pesticide Atlas. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Participatory budgeting – the shared decision between city leaders and inhabitants on spending a part of the municipal budget – is becoming an increasingly popular democratic tool in Europe. With over 4,500 PBs, equal to 39% of worldwide cases, Europe is the region hosting the highest number of these participatory exercises. Find out more in this infographic.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas participates via videoconference in Article 17 High-Level dialogue meeting on future of Europe
  • Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen participates in informal meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers (Gymnich) in Brest, France
  • Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius holds phone call with new Dutch Agriculture Minister Henk Staghouwer.

Views are the author’s.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]