In the standoff between Russia and the West, Wednesday was a day of mixed signals. For the first time in nearly two years, a NATO-Russia Council meeting was held, opening what Russian Ambassador Alexander Grushko described as a "frank and serious" dialogue between representatives from Moscow and the Western military bloc. The meeting reportedly went 90 minutes over its allotted time — lasting three and a half hours in all — yet it failed to produce any concrete conclusions. Representatives from both sides referenced profound differences on issues such as Syria and NATO's buildup near Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia's periphery.
Although the meeting was unproductive, its occurrence is still notable. Russia has shown signs in recent days, particularly when it comes to Ukraine, that it is willing to compromise. On Tuesday, representatives from the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics, the separatist territories that Russia backs in eastern Ukraine, announced that they would postpone their local elections, scheduled for this week, until July 24. Ostensibly, the delay will allow more time for negotiations. The West and the Ukrainian government in Kiev have both maintained that elections should wait until necessary security components of the Minsk peace agreement have been implemented. Russia undoubtedly encouraged — if not demanded — the delay.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed by phone on a possible arrangement for the release of Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko. Imprisoned in Russia on murder charges, Savchenko has become a poster child for anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine: A large banner reading "Free Savchenko" hangs just outside Kiev's Boryspil airport. Under the tentative agreement, Moscow would release Savchenko in exchange for two Russians imprisoned in Ukraine. This would be a significant political gesture to Kiev and the West. Though the agreement has not been finalized, it could signify even greater room for compromise on Russia's part, not only on Ukraine but perhaps on other issues as well.
But Russia's goodwill goes only so far. While it was discussing prisoner swaps with Kiev and delaying elections in eastern Ukraine, Moscow was applying pressure against the West in other areas. For instance, Russian warplanes continue to harass U.S. vessels and aircraft transiting strategic areas such as the Baltic and Black seas. NATO has called for the Russians to stop these tactics, which became a key topic in Wednesday's meeting.
The Russians have also continued their significant military involvement in Syria, propping up the Bashar al Assad government against both U.S.-supported rebels and jihadist groups. Despite repeated requests from the United States to reconsider support for Damascus, the Russians (and Iranians) reportedly continue to support loyalist offensive operations. A U.S. official informed the Wall Street Journal that the Russians have recently moved their artillery units to the battlefields of Aleppo. If Russia participates in more large-scale battles in Syria, it will be complicit in sending another wave of refugees from the country, further straining Europe.
Finally, the Russians understand that they cannot easily match the conventional military strength of the United States or NATO, so they are investing heavily in their nuclear force, which is alarming officials in Washington. Fears are growing in the Pentagon that the Russians may not abide by their arms control agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and New START treaties. There is even concern that, as tensions with the West persist, Putin may allow the testing of nuclear weapons as part of Russia's military modernization program. This development, though relatively unlikely at this point, would undermine two decades of arms control efforts.
In its stalemate with the West, Russia has apparently opted for a carrot-and-stick strategy, spanning the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and extending to conventional military buildups. Feeling out its influence over NATO's plans, Moscow will make token conciliatory gestures as well as stern demands. And negotiations between Russia and the West are likely to go on in this manner, with pitfalls and opportunities for both along the way.