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On stage at the Kremlin: Putin and Lavrov’s de-escalation dance

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his trusty foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Monday signaled that there would be no imminent military strike on Ukraine and that they were prepared to continue diplomatic dialogue with the West, led by the United States.

Coming after the U.S. warned that a major invasion could begin as soon as Wednesday, the geopolitical dance moves were so exquisitely choreographed that a meeting between Putin and Lavrov might have been better held on stage at the Bolshoi Theater, rather than around a huge rectangular conference table at the Kremlin.  

“Sergey Viktorovich,” Putin formally addressed Lavrov in a publicly released video clip of their encounter. “In your opinion, is there a chance,” he asked, giving a dramatic shrug of his shoulders, “to agree, to reach an agreement with our partners on key issues that cause our concern, or is it just an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process that has no logical conclusion?”

“Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lavrov replied. “You have already said more than once — you, and other representatives of the Russian Federation — that we warn against endless discussions on issues that need to be resolved today.”

“But still,” Lavrov said, coming to his punchline, “I must say that there is always a chance.”

Citing the planned visit to Moscow on Tuesday by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and an array of other meetings, Lavrov added: “It seems to me that our possibilities are far from being exhausted. Of course, they should not continue indefinitely, but at this stage I would suggest that they be continued and increased.”

“OK,” Putin said, and quickly moved on to ask if Lavrov had prepared a written reply to the responses by NATO and the U.S. to Russia’s demands in December for new security guarantees. Lavrov said that indeed, a 10-page answer was ready to go.

Neither Putin nor Lavrov stand to win any acting awards — they have been playing their respective roles far too long to deliver much creativity or inspiration. But the global audience breathed a hefty sigh of relief nonetheless — particularly given the U.S. having warned ominously on Friday of cyberattacks, a ground invasion and missile strikes.

But there was further assurance from a separate meeting between Putin and his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who reported that some of the Russian military exercises that had raised alarm in the West had already drawn to a close.

“Large-scale exercises are taking place in the Western Military District, in almost all fleets — in the Barents Sea, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Pacific Fleet,” Shoigu said, according to a Kremlin transcript: “Troops from almost all military districts take part in them, including the Eastern Military District, the Central Military District, and the Northern Fleet. Some of these exercises are coming to an end, some will be completed in the near future.”

Russian officials, in fact, for weeks had derided the warnings by the West as hysterical, even as Moscow continued a massive military build-up along Ukraine’s borders, both on its own territory and in neighboring Belarus.

Lavrov’s repeated reminders that discussions should not go on forever — and the announcement that the U.S. and NATO would soon receive his 10-page reply — served as a warning that a threat of future conflict remains.

But there were other indications on Monday that everyone was looking to find ways out of the standoff.

At a meeting in Kyiv, Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sent signals that Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO might end up on the back burner, potentially answering one of the Kremlin’s key demands, which was for a guarantee that Ukraine would not join the alliance.

Standing with Zelenskiy, Scholz also said he had received assurances that Ukraine would move forward with “the relevant draft laws that we need for the continuation of the Minsk process” — the implementation of the long-stuck peace accords intended to resolve the nearly eight-year-long war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass.

While serious obstacles remain regarding the Minsk peace accords, the changed tone about Ukraine’s potential NATO membership was particularly notable, with Zelenskiy insisting that his country had not given up its aspiration to join the alliance, but also acknowledging that all allies — they currently number 30 — would have to approve.

“There is no signal from us that NATO membership is not our goal,” Zelenskiy said, adding: “Unfortunately, not everything depends on Ukraine.”

Scholz, who took over the chancellery in December, is headed to Moscow for his first meeting with Putin on Tuesday. And the Kremlin’s demonstrative public effort to ease tensions suggested that perhaps Putin was angling for a positive start with his new German counterpart.

Among many other priorities, Russia is keen to win approval from German regulators for the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

The U.S. and its allies have loudly threatened Russia with a barrage of heavy sanctions in response to any attack on Ukraine, and President Joe Biden had specifically described preventing Nord Stream 2 from ever operating as a goal of such measures.

Meanwhile, as tensions ratcheted up in recent weeks, nearly all of the world’s major military powers weighed in. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met Putin in Beijing, issued a statement joining Russia in calling for a halt to any expansion in NATO membership. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, visited Kyiv and announced plans to build a factory in Ukraine to manufacture armed drones. Erdoğan called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, in compliance with international law, and offered to host a direct meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy.

Such a face-to-face encounter still seems unlikely for the time being, with Putin expressing continued disdain over the situation in Ukraine and demanding that Kyiv negotiate directly with the separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, whom Zelenskiy has branded as “terrorists.”

Meanwhile, senior U.S. officials reiterated on Monday that Russia’s military capabilities should not be underestimated.

“This is a military that continues to grow stronger, continues to grow more ready,” the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said in a televised interview. Speaking of Putin, Kirby said: “We believe that he has a lot of capabilities and options available to him, should he want to use military force. And, as we have said, it could happen any day. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we could see him move with little to no warning.”

Hans von der Burchard and Quint Forgey contributed reporting.

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