Western policy makers remain as puzzled now as their counterparts were on the eve of the Cold War forty years ago about Russia’s geopolitical intentions. 

Is the Kremlin preparing to launch an invasion of its neighbor Ukraine, which increasingly sees itself as part of the West, if sweeping security guarantees Russia has demanded are rebuffed? Or is the ominous Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders an exercise in brinkmanship, a maneuver by President Vladimir Putin to try to wring more than he otherwise would from the United States and European allies at the negotiating table? 

Answers to those questions may start coming Monday when senior U.S. and Russian officials meet in Geneva to start discussing Kremlin demands for NATO to withdraw any military presence from the former Soviet satellite countries of Central Europe and to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine.

Some eight decades ago, Western policymakers were also trying to decipher the intentions of then-Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, a Communist leader whose legacy Putin has done much to try to rehabilitate in Russia. Guy Liddell, a top British intelligence official, lamented in his diary in February 1948 how difficult it was to fathom whether Soviet Russia was planning military aggression.

While the Kremlin proclaimed peaceful intentions and said its maneuvers were “strategically defensive,” Liddell recorded in his diary that Russian actions — from military preparations to propaganda campaigns, from interventions to “attempts at disruption” — were the same that would accompany a “policy planned for aggression” and Western powers therefore had no option but to prepare for the worst and remain vigilant.

Just two weeks later Kremlin-directed communists seized final control over the government of Czechoslovakia. The loss of the last remaining democracy in Eastern Europe concluded the partition of Europe, freezing the two halves of the continent in a four-decade-long Cold War.

Policy makers are split now about what Putin has in mind by camping more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, and whether the military buildup is driven by adventurism or a sense of insecurity, misplaced or not. 

Europe

Some Western diplomats fear Putin intends for talks to fail so he has pretext for pushing deeper into Ukraine, in a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and seized a large part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

They are also wrestling with the options available to them to try to deter Putin from making any dramatic military moves on Ukraine. And while all NATO members, and several of Europe’s non-members, have joined the United States in warning of dire consequences and punitive economic sanctions in the event of a Russian move on Ukraine, there are important nuances between the allies, with some Western leaders sounding tougher than others.

Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who wants a face-to-face meeting with Russian leader Putin later this month, has talked of resetting relations with Moscow and recently spoke of seeking “a new start,” although he also cautioned of severe consequences in the event of another Russian assault on Ukraine. Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, has been much harder and defiant in his public remarks, reiterating his country’s right to join NATO, if Finns decide to, and flatly rejecting Russian demands that NATO admits no new members. 

Sweden, which is not a NATO member but has been deepening military cooperation with the bloc, is also bristling at Moscow’s expansive demands of no further NATO enlargement, with its foreign minister, Ann Linde, underscoring that Moscow has no right to dictate which countries can join the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

“It should not be up to Russia if we could join or if we could not join NATO,” she said Friday.

Ahead of formal talks this week, NATO officials have dismissed Russia’s wide-ranging security demands as impossible and non-starters. The demands include a halt to further NATO enlargement and a roll-back of any alliance military presence in the seven of the eight former Soviet republics and satellite states of Central Europe which joined the Western alliance in waves since 1999. The Kremlin has also demanded the withdrawal of American tactical nuclear weapons from Europe but has not offered any reciprocal constraints on its arsenal of tactical missiles.

The bilateral American-Russian talks in Geneva, which are being led on the U.S. side by senior State department officials, are to be followed this week by Russia-NATO council negotiations in Brussels and a meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a body that includes Russia, Ukraine, and all NATO countries. They amount to a week of high-stakes diplomacy not been seen since the Cold War with Putin seemingly determined to make the dialogue about the whole future security architecture of Europe and Western powers trying to limit discussions. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned against “endless discussions, which is something the West knows how to do and is notorious for.” His boss, President Putin, has also said he is not prepared for talks to drag out for “blathering” that last decades. “They will indulge in endless talk about the necessity of negotiations,” he said on Russian television recently.

Some Western policymakers suspect Putin is trying to rush because the brinkmanship might weaken Western resolve and crack its unity. But U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken Sunday told CNN that he worries Putin’s aim is “to re-exert a sphere of influence over countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union.” He added: “We can’t go back to a world of spheres of influence. That was a recipe for instability, a recipe for conflict, a recipe that led to world wars.”

Andrew Marshall of the Atlantic Council, a U.S. research group, says the geopolitical stakes are potentially era-changing. “The outcome of this dispute could decisively rewrite the terms of security on the European continent for an entire generation — just as the decisions of the 1990s did after the end of the Cold War,” he explained in a recent commentary.

Will Putin settle for anything less than a revanchist turning the clock back to when Moscow controlled half of Europe? The Western tactic appears to be to try to draw Putin into the weeds and to discuss some European security arrangements in which both sides have an interest in reaching agreements. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Linde points to arms controls and rules on the size and frequency of military exercises near borders. Linde told Foreign Policy magazine that Moscow’s intentions remain unclear, but “to give diplomacy and dialogue a chance to work is always better than military activities,” she said.

Other analysts believe Putin ultimately is focused on Ukraine and getting it to return to the Russian orbit and that the wider demands over European security architecture are a case of what former U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger once described as the Russian tendency of “kicking all the doors and seeing which fall off their hinges.” 

Russian commentator Vladimir Frolov believes Putin is set on ensuring that Ukraine has “to hammer out its relationship with Russia on Russia’s terms.” But he fears even that a more limited goal is unlikely.

“Escalation remains likely, due to unrealistic requirements being made under artificially short deadlines,” he says.