The Moment of Truth for Moldova and Ukraine

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Sergiu CEBAN
The year 2021 has left behind unpleasant disturbing feelings about the state of things in our region. The 30th anniversary of the USSR dissolution has become the line symbolizing a new stage of possible political transformation for Moldova and Ukraine
It is known that after the Soviet system collapsed, most of the countries that had been under its “guardianship” for a long time somehow found their geopolitical identity and foreign policy guidelines. The states of central and Eastern Europe have been integrated into the European Union and NATO, while, for example, Belarus is at the final stage of being absorbed by Russia. The countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus are still under the influence of Moscow, Beijing and other regional players, such as Turkey. The only countries that, in fact, remain up in the air are our Moldova, neighboring Ukraine, and partly Georgia. Therefore, in the coming year and beyond, Chisinau and Kyiv will gradually come to the forefront of negotiations between the West and Russia with practically unpredictable outcomes. Of course, we should not overestimate the importance of the post-Soviet republics, but the fact that we are part of the “large agenda” is almost an indisputable fact. It remains only to figure out how profitable or, on the contrary, dangerous it is for us and our neighbors. Judging by Russia’s ultimatums, Kremlin strategists decided that they still had the right and, most importantly, the power to demand from the collective West to roll back the geopolitical situation in Europe by the end of the 90s, when NATO’s military infrastructure was exclusively in Western Europe. According to Moscow’s plan, Western partners - primarily the United States - are obliged to sit down at the negotiating table and completely reshape the continental security taking into account Russian interests. It looks that within such a concept, Moscow will try to achieve the complete “neutralization” of Moldova and Ukraine. At the same time, it’s not only about military neutrality, but also domestic and foreign policy. As a result, the Kremlin, apparently, expects to receive amorphous semi-state formations at its borders, which will be partially desuverized and thus will be able to serve as a security buffer between the North Atlantic Alliance and Russia. A lot of signs indicate the seriousness of the situation. First of all, quite frequent communication between the presidents of the United States and Russia – on December 30, they had the second call in a month discussing the situation around Ukraine and identifying ways of rapprochement. This public exchange of signals does not look very encouraging, but this is a normal situation – on the eve of negotiations, each side, following elementary logic, tries to set the stakes too high. This time, Biden warned Putin about the decisive measures that Washington would certainly take in the event of Russia attacking Ukraine, stressing that significant progress in the negotiations could be achieved only by easing the tension. The American president also pointed out two possible ways of moving forward: diplomatic or deterrent. If the latter is implemented, Russia will actually be disconnected from the global economic and financial system, and NATO will significantly increase its presence in Europe to strengthen its allies’ defense capabilities. Vladimir Putin, in turn, threatened that the introduction of large-scale sanctions over Ukraine could lead to a complete rupture of relations between the United States and Russia. After this conversation, Joe Biden called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday. The final White House press release indicated that the leaders expressed support for the “diplomatic efforts” of the United States and Russia, and Biden separately spoke in favor of de-escalation in the Donbass and progress on the Minsk agreements. The latter is especially important - Ukraine has actually refused to implement it for a long time, and if Washington somehow starts to put pressure on Kyiv on this issue, it will be one of the main indicators that the Russian-American negotiations were successful. In general, despite the difficult atmosphere of relations, it is obvious to everyone that the dialogue must continue, since the alternative to it is not the most pleasant consequences. Therefore, several levels of negotiations will be launched soon. On January 10, representatives of the United States and Russia will meet in Geneva, then on January 12, the Russian delegation will hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, and literally the next day – a meeting in the OSCE. The main topics have been known for a long time: these are issues of strategic security and guarantees, the future framework of European security and the situation around Ukraine. Preparations for the meetings are going on at a high political level. By the way, one of the key Kremlin emissaries Dmitry Kozak visited Vienna last week, where he talked with a representative delegation of the OSCE. One of the issues was the Transnistrian settlement, in the acceleration of which Moscow is extremely interested, including from the point of view of extrapolating this experience to the Ukrainian Donbass. Thus, the coming year may become pivotal for Eastern Europe and, above all, Moldova and Ukraine. Especially, judging by the rather aggressive attitude of the Kremlin, stressing that it would not be “talked down” at these negotiations and would wait literally several rounds to assess the progress. So, what path will be determined for our regional space - conditional “peace or war”, it will become clear soon enough. The countries that turned out to be a “game” for Russia and America are still more or less calm. Ukraine, for example, does not really believe that Washington will really meet Russian somewhat too ambitious aspirations. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba assured that the United States and NATO will not agree with the demands to stop the expansion of the bloc to the east or roll back its infrastructure from Central European countries, because this would be the “biggest humiliation” of the United States and its allies since the founding of the alliance. Our leadership, despite the dynamically changing vision, remains silent and practically does not comment on the negotiations between Washington and Moscow, although Kozak’s shuttle diplomacy leaves no doubt that we are being actively pushed into the American-Russian agenda. The Kremlin, of course, is trying to act on the spur of the moment in negotiations with the United States and is unlikely to consider our wishes. So it would be nice for us to start looking for channels where our position would be heard and taken into account. Optimism is surely a good thing, but going with the flow now, given the dynamics and unpredictability of the situation, may not be the best idea.