It is unclear what the West can do to bridge the gaps. Moscow has been willing to pay the costs of international condemnation. It has not been deterred by economic sanctions from the U.S. or eviction from the G-8, and it has managed to stave off the threat of sanctions from its more important trading partners in the EU, whose members buy 30 percent of their natural gas from Russian giant Gazprom.
And Moscow has shown it is willing to go the distance in Ukraine, first by brashly occupying and then annexing the Crimean peninsula in March, and then by repeatedly emphasizing that military intervention in mainland Ukraine is on the table, even if it remains a last resort.
The talks in Geneva are not likely to erode Russian resolve; on the contrary, they could play into Moscow’s strategy, said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “The talks tomorrow, from the Russian side, are basically a tactical move to dangle the carrot of negotiations before the West. They’re a mechanism to postpone the possibility of sanctions from the European Union.”
Still, the West has cards it can play on behalf of its allies in Kyiv. The U.S., at least, has repeatedly threatened a harsher regimen of economic sanctions, a threat that will likely resurface in Geneva. At some point, analysts say, Europe will have to make good on its promised economic retaliation, too.
And even though military engagement with Russia would be highly undesirable for the cash-strapped, war-weary members of NATO, the military alliance announced on Wednesday it would bolster its presence along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, apparently to counter the threat posed by an estimated 40,000 Russian troops that have massed on the other side.
There will be “more planes in the air, more ships on the water, more readiness on the land,” said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who added that the buildup was about “deterrence and de-escalation” in the face of Russian aggression. After all, Crimea looms large as a resounding geopolitical victory for Putin over his Western rivals.
“We feel very strongly that the pattern of activities bears striking similarities to the situation in Crimea, ahead of the illegal Russian occupation and purported annexation of that part of Ukraine,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
Most analysts do not expect Russia to invade mainland Ukraine as it did Crimea. Dividing Ukraine through federalization would be less costly — both geopolitically and economically — than conquering it. “I don’t think the annexation of the Donetsk region is an option at this stage of the crisis, but Russia’s strategy is flexible and can change” depending on the situation on the ground, Kononczuk said.
But there is nonetheless an urgency to these talks. As the diplomatic wrangling trudges along, Russia continues to stoke the divisions that underpin its narrative of the Ukrainian crisis, said Forbrig. “Russia is playing for time to create facts on the ground in Ukraine,” he said.
If Western leaders do not show a strong hand on Thursday, Putin will likely continue to have his way.
“Russia thinks the West is unable to impose any real sanctions on Russia, and to a large extent it is right. Putin understands the West much better than the West understands Putin,” said Kononczuk. “A weak response from the West after the Russian annexation of Crimea gave it a green light for further escalation, and Russia has shown it is ready to pay some costs of its actions in Ukraine.”