Despite the clamor of warnings about war, the diplomatic dialogue between Moscow and the West is set to continue — for the time being, at least — after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday he would send a letter to Western counterparts seeking clarification on a key security question of interest to the Kremlin.
In an interview with four Russian radio stations, Lavrov said that his letter would request that the U.S. and other Western powers explain their position on the principle of “indivisibility” in Euro-Atlantic security, as described in the 1999 “Istanbul Document” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
While Lavrov’s point might seem esoteric, his comments represented a potentially important signal from the highest levels of the Russian government about the willingness to continue diplomatic talks, amid fears of a further invasion or other military strike on Ukraine.
At another point in the radio interview, Lavrov said: “We don’t want wars.”
On Wednesday, the United States and NATO delivered their written responses to a raft of demands for security guarantees that Russia had put forward in December in the form of two draft treaties. Senior Western officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, had described many of the Russian requests as “non-starters,” in particular demands for the removal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe and for hard assurances that neither Ukraine nor Georgia would ever join the alliance.
In response to the written replies, both Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian side was not optimistic but that the documents were in Putin’s hands and the president was studying them.
During a flurry of diplomatic meetings, news conferences and public pronouncements in recent weeks, Russian officials have repeatedly stressed their view of the “indivisibility” of Euro-Atlantic security as defined by the OSCE, focusing on a section of the Istanbul Document, which states that “each participating state has an equal right to security” and adds, “They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states.”
On the radio program, Lavrov complained that the Western nations like to focus only on “one slogan” from the Istanbul Document, about how each country is “free to choose its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance.” It is under this principle that Washington insists that it is only up to Ukraine and NATO to decide on its future membership in the alliance.
In the interview, Lavrov alleged that the U.S. and NATO were purposely ignoring another part of the same paragraph, where he said: “It is stipulated by the condition and obligation of each country, under which the Westerners signed, not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of others.”
Russia insists that Ukraine joining NATO would come at the expense of its own security. NATO disputes the point, insisting that it is a defensive alliance and therefore Russia should have nothing to fear.
“Today,” Lavrov told the interviewers, “I am sending official requests to all my colleagues with a direct appeal, officially, to explain how they are going to fulfil the obligations that their countries signed at the highest level in the current historical conditions.”
Lavrov said he expected the West to dodge again, but perhaps more importantly he also seemed ready to wait for another response. “Let’s see what they will answer us,” he said.
Some Western officials have suggested that Russia’s focus on such details is just an effort to kick up a lot of diplomatic dust, while Moscow continues to shift a massive amount of military equipment, weapons and troops to positions in Belarus, potentially for an invasion that would encircle Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
In a briefing for reporters on Friday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, said that Russia was positioned to attack Ukraine at any moment, and the U.S. and NATO allies would not let down their guard.
“With respect to the Ukraine and the situation we confront now, the Russian government has positioned its military to be able to invade, further invade Ukraine with no notice, with no forewarning,” Sullivan said. “The massive buildup, over 100,000 troops on the border, is extraordinary. It can’t be explained as an ordinary military exercise or exercises, and it is destabilizing. It is extremely threatening to Ukraine and it is why the United States government and our allies and partners have responded as we have.”
“I understand what the Russian government has said publicly, that it has no intention to invade Ukraine,” Sullivan added. “But the facts on the ground tell a much different story.”