The 10-minute Lavrov-Blinken meeting not to be sniffed at

Story by  Saeed Naqvi | Posted by  Aasha Khosa • 27 d ago
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary Antony Blinken  Blinken
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary Antony Blinken Blinken


Saeed Naqvi 

It is a toss-up. Which of the two incidents at the G20 was more important: the 10 minutes Blinken-Lavrov exchange or the contentions in the way of a joint communique? Both give diverse signals on whether or not there is a suggestion in the air about a crawl toward peace in Ukraine. 

In the 70s, a well-known strategist at Rand Corporation, Fred Ikle wrote, “All Wars Must End.” Trust a recent study by Rand to refer to the Ikle classic. The salient point in the piece is that the national leaders entering a war generally plan, in any depth, only about the first act, without an eye on the ending. In a given war, circumstances can change which would alter the outcome.

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The latest Rand survey gives examples of possible sudden shifts – wild cards, a serious nuclear incident at Zaporizhzhia, another war in the Middle East, an invasion of Taiwan, or the outbreak of another deadly pandemic. “The longer a war continues, the greater the likelihood that such events will occur.” 

The study by a think tank close to the Pentagon is not optimistic about Ukraine’s chances on the battlefield. 

“Ukrainian ability to defend itself could also be undermined by Russia’s continued attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure.” 

Another and very real possibility of Ukraine being undermined is by a reduction of western military and financial support. This could be a possibility if there is a decline in European unity about the conflict. Much of this unity in any case was a media build-up. Stories of clear differences between European countries were not played up. I have on earlier occasions mentioned French President Emanuel Macron’s talk with his officials and diplomats. He felt strongly that the 300 years long Western dominance of the world order was coming to an end. This is just one of the many examples. 

Western hegemony may be ending but a University of Cambridge research has produced copious data to confirm an accelerated global divide post-Ukraine – between what it calls the “liberal democracies of the West” and the authoritarian states which are more inclined towards China and Russia. 

According to this study among 1.2 billion people who inhabit the liberal democracies 75% hold a negative view of China and 87% of Russia. Only some of this must be credited to the way the Ukraine conflict has been reported in the West. It only builds on the bias already existing in the West, particularly since the rise of China 30 years ago. The growing dislike for Russia is both more intense and more recent. 

What must disturb liberal democracies is that the majority of the world population, the 6.3 billion outside the charmed West, have a different attitude towards China and Russia – 70% of this population is positive towards China and 66% towards Russia. Large populations polarized in this fashion will have a profound effect on global politics, business, and trade. 

On the margins of the New Delhi G20 as in Ukraine-related writing elsewhere, an expression commonly in use to speculate on the end of the war is “frozen conflict.” In such a situation according to Brian Jenkins of Rand, Russian forces would keep the territory already held, while Ukraine “lies in ruins, still under threat of renewed attacks.” Jenkins continues, “few refugees are likely to return under these circumstances.” Investments would simply not come because the risks of renewed fighting would be high. 

All of this would be a considerable disincentive for western unity in support of sanctions against Russia, as well as financial and military support for Ukraine. Is that the scenario for the end game? 

In my catalogue on Ukraine, the incident which gives a clue to Joe Biden’s mind on the conflict is his press conference on December 30, 2022. This briefing took place after a three-hour meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

The meeting had been contentious, with Zelensky asking for arms more lethal than Biden was prepared to part with. The initial yen to defeat Putin and carve up his country had yielded to a more realistic appraisal of ground realities. This appraisal of the war was revealed quite inadvertently in the course of the White House press briefing. Biden was elaborating on weapons being shipped to Ukraine, including Patriot anti-missile batteries. One of the reporters chipped in: “at an earlier stage of the war a US official had told us the Patriots were not on the table because their induction would be seen as unnecessary escalation. And now Patriots were on offer.” 

The reporter concluded his argument: “Let’s make it brief: why can’t you give to Ukraine all the capabilities it needs to liberate its territories sooner rather than later.” Biden was tongue-tied. In his nervousness, he pointed to Zelensky and said. “He will say yes to your proposition.” Clearly, Biden had said no to Zelensky’s persistent demand for lethal arms. 

Biden explained his caution. The US was not giving Ukraine “everything” with reason: an entire alliance was sending arms that harmonized. If we gave equipment not cleared by NATO, the entire alliance coordination would come under strain. 

“We are going to give Ukraine what it needs to defend itself.” 

It has been clear to me, at least, since the December press briefing that Washington was not going to place in Zelensky’s hands anything more lethal than was required to keep the Russians tied down with the ability for battlefield gains. 

This is a war the Russians cannot afford to lose. Survival is an existential necessity with NATO crouching around Russia. More firepower in Ukraine and the use of nuclear weapons by the Russians in Ukraine would become a real possibility. 

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Americans too cannot afford to not emerge looking victorious. They do not wish to have a seal stamped on the end of the unipolar world. When such high stakes are in the balance ten minutes of the Blinken-Lavrov meeting cannot be sniffed at. 

(Saeed Naqvi is a Delhi-based veteran journalist)