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The West Flirts with Russia

The West Flirts with Russia

Sergey Lavrov's reception at a recent European summit should worry Russia-watchers.

Nikola Mikovic

Ukraine fears that the United States and its allies—preoccupied with their internal issues and the conflict in the Middle East—will stop assisting Kyiv in its fight against Russia. Nearly half of the U.S. public thinks the country is spending too much on aid to the East European nation, while recent developments in the international arena suggest that the West may be looking to, at least to a certain extent, normalize relations with the Kremlin.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, certain Western entities continued doing business with Russia as usual despite sanctions that the United States and the European Union imposed on Moscow. According to reports, cast-iron exports from Russia to the EU increased by 40 percent this year compared to the same period in 2022, while countries such as Finland and the Czech Republic have resumed imports of Russian energy.

Moreover, on November 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov participated in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in North Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje. One year ago Polish authorities refused to allow Lavrov and other members of the Russian delegation to participate in the same summit. 

At that time, Russia’s top diplomat had said that the OSCE is “falling apart” and that it is being “marginalized.” This year Lavrov continued using his anti-OSCE rhetoric despite attending the conference, claiming that it is “in a deplorable shape” and that its prospects “remain unclear.”  In addition to Lavrov’s participation, the fact that EU and NATO member Greece allowed Lavrov to fly over its territory on the way to North Macedonia further indicates that the West no longer firmly insists on the isolation of the Russian Federation. 

As a result of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Russia’s foreign minister has not been allowed to visit any European country since the European Union imposed sanctions on him in February 2022. In June of last year, he could not travel to Serbia after neighboring Balkan nations refused to open their airspace to his plane.

Although North Macedonia is as of yet only a candidate for EU membership, Lavrov’s visit to the landlocked Balkan nation signals that the bloc may be changing its position toward Moscow.

“Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov must hear from participants in the OSCE Ministerial Council in Skopje why Russia is isolated and sanctioned, and he must convey the messages to the Kremlin,” Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said prior to the summit. In other words, Lavrov was apparently allowed to come to Skopje to hear what he already knew. From the Russian perspective, the EU move represents a signal that the West is interested in dialogue with Moscow. 

True,  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the summit before he could run into his Russian counterpart, while Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states boycotted the OSCE meeting over Lavrov’s participation. These snubs did not mean, however, that Lavrov was isolated in Skopje. According to reports, he met with his Hungarian and Austrian counterparts. As usual, the Kremlin seeks to exploit cracks in Western unity.

Such developments undoubtedly worry Ukraine. The East European nation fears that its Western partners could eventually abandon Kyiv or force Ukrainian authorities to make significant territorial concessions to Russia. According to former Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, the West will try to impose on Kyiv a peace agreement whereby Ukraine would cede Ukraine’s four annexed regions to the Russian Federation. 

Whether such accusations are true or not, at this point Ukraine seems determined not to hold any peace talks with Russia but to continue fighting. In October 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree formally announcing that the prospect of peace negotiations between his country and Russian President Vladimir Putin were “impossible,” while the war-torn nation’s deputy justice minister recently saidthat Kyiv will not sign any agreements with Moscow unless Russia agrees to pay war reparations to Ukraine. 

From Moscow’s perspective, such an outcome would constitute a de facto admission that it committed aggression against a sovereign state, which is why the Kremlin is unlikely to accept Kyiv’s condition. However, in the early days of the war, Russia reportedly signaled that it was ready to make certain concessions Ukraine. According to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, during negotiations in March 2022 Ukrainian and Russian delegations discussed the possibility of “leasing” Crimea—a territory Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine, however, refused to sign the agreement. 

David Arakhamia, head of the Ukrainian delegation at the peace talks in Istanbul in March to April 2022, revealed that the Russian delegation promised Kyiv peace if Ukraine gives up on its ambition to join NATO and officially becomes a military neutral country. In Arakhamia’s telling, “When we returned from Istanbul, the then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson came to Kyiv and said: ‘We will not sign anything with them at. Let’s just go to war.’”

Ever since, Ukraine has become heavily dependent on NATO countries’ military and financial assistance, even though there are no firm guarantees that the East European country will join the alliance anytime soon, if at all. On November 30, Zelenskyy stressed that, “Nobody can say for sure if Ukraine will become a NATO member,” while the country’s finance minister pointed out that the Ukrainian budget is “missing $29 billion of international funding.” Thus, unless the West continues supporting Ukraine both militarily and financially it could soon face an existential crisis.

Lavrov, meanwhile, insists that the West wants to “freeze the conflict, buy time, and arm Kyiv again.” Such a strategy would allow Ukraine to consolidate its positions and resolve economic disputes with neighbors Slovakia and Poland

It is not very probable that the Kremlin is willing to end the war until it achieves at least some of its strategic goals. Western attempts to indirectly soften anti-Russian sanctions are therefore unlikely to lead to a ceasefire deal between Moscow and Kyiv. The war will almost certainly continue throughout 2024, when, as one can only imagine, Russia will attempt to exploit the lack of unity between the United States and its allies and make significant territorial gains in Ukraine.

Nikola Mikovic is a Serbian journalist and political analyst, focusing on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Image: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the annual ministerial conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Skopje, North Macedonia. (Russian Foreign Ministry)

Eastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineUnited States