These days we feel like we are stepping back to the days of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Browsing through Russia’s national TV channels Russia 1 and First Channel, one couldn’t help but feel transported to the 1970s. The belligerent rhetoric is back, as is grassroots criticism of the decadent West; Films on offer range from the 1976 classic, Irony of Fate, to the 1967 comedy, Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, and The Diamond Arm, a smash hit from 1969.
On the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian audiences are feeding on a healthy diet of nostalgia for the good old days of order and social stability.
Going back to the past also seems to be the mood for Moscow’s foreign policy. The US-Russian summits are becoming a regular feature of relations, a throwback to the height of the Cold War. On December 30, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone call to discuss the tensions over Ukraine. Reportedly, each of them issued warnings to the other side, but overall the tone was “constructive.”
The exchange follows a meeting between the two leaders via a video link held on December 7 to discuss a number of issues, including Ukraine. Six months earlier, they had organized a face-to-face summit in Geneva, which had resulted in the return of the American and Russian ambassadors to their respective capitals.
Communication has also intensified at different levels of government. At the beginning of November, William Burns, director of the CIA and former ambassador to Russia, traveled to Moscow, where he met Putin, the secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and the head of the Russian foreign intelligence service Sergei Naryshkin to discuss tensions with Ukraine. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has also been in contact with Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuriy Ushakov.
For the Kremlin, having Biden’s undivided attention is a success. This is a clear sign that the build-up of troops and the threat of military action against Ukraine are working. Over the past six years, Moscow has become frustrated with the stalemate in the Ukrainian conflict. The Minsk II agreement forged in 2015 with the mediation of France and Germany failed to end the fighting.
Kiev and Moscow blame each other for the lack of progress. The Russians claim that Ukraine has failed to deliver on its commitment to implement constitutional changes granting broad autonomy to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as a step towards their reinstatement. The Ukrainians, for their part, accuse Russia of not allowing the Kiev government to regain control of the Russian-Ukrainian border.
To break the deadlock, the Kremlin would like to force a new deal and do it through the United States, bypassing Paris and Berlin. The idea is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be faced with a fait accompli and would have no choice but to align.
But by engaging with the United States, Russia has also upped the ante. On December 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry circulated two treaty proposals, one with the United States and the other with NATO. They called on the Atlantic Alliance to reverse the pledge made to Ukraine and Georgia in April 2008 that they might one day join.
The project further requires that NATO not station large combat forces in its eastern members, as it began to do after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moscow also wants NATO to s ‘pledges not to deploy intermediate-range missiles near its borders.
Last but not least, the proposals call for an end to military assistance to Ukraine, whether provided by the United States or through NATO, as well as an end to military assistance exercises. alliance involving post-Soviet countries. In essence, Russia wants to go back to the late 1990s, oust the West from Eastern Europe and consolidate its hegemonic position in its so-called “near abroad”.
By pursuing these goals, the Kremlin is leveraging its military weight. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weapons are currently deployed near the Russian-Ukrainian border as well as in the annexed Crimean peninsula. Much of it has been deployed since early 2021. An operation against Ukraine cannot therefore be ruled out. Putin may be bluffing, but if he decided to act against the neighboring country, he would have no problem.
The response of the United States and its European allies has been to draw Russia to the negotiating table in order to defuse tensions.
Following the active diplomatic efforts of the Biden administration, at the end of December Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that talks would take place on January 10. A Russia-NATO meeting takes place two days later. Even though the bulk of Russian proposals are not departures for the West, engaging in a diplomatic process is preferable to violence.
If all goes well, there could also be limited progress, especially on “deconfliction” in areas where NATO and Russia clash, such as the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. Over time, the talks could lead to partial security agreements acceptable to both sides as well as countries like Ukraine and Georgia which, contrary to what the Kremlin thinks, have interests and autonomy of their own.
But of course there is also a lot of skepticism. Some experts suggest that Russia’s publication of draft treaties, ahead of the actual talks, is a clever ploy to undermine the diplomatic channel and create a pretext for military action against Ukraine.
To be successful in this game, the United States and its allies must negotiate with the Russians from a position of strength. As in Brezhnev’s time, they must credibly dissuade Moscow in order to open space for real negotiations. This is why the United States is communicating to Putin that it is ready to step up economic sanctions – “like it has never seen before,” in Biden’s words – in the event of war.
However, it is not clear to what extent European allies would follow suit. In France, President Emmanuel Macron called for caution. The new German government coalition between the left, the Greens and the liberals could find itself divided on the issue, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz adopting an accommodating line and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock pushing for a firm response. Needless to say, Russia will do its best to exploit any political divisions that may emerge within NATO.
So far, Putin’s strategy is paying off. Moscow has dealt with Washington as a close geopolitical counterpart. At a time when the United States is obsessed with the rise of China, this is no small feat. Brezhnev’s USSR may be long gone, and today’s Russia may be just a pale shadow of its predecessor, but from the Kremlin’s perspective, it is doing its best to stay in the game.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.