Top Russian, Ukrainian, U.S. diplomats square off on stage

Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., left, and Sergey Kislyak, Russian Ambassador to the U.S.
Washington CNN  — 

As President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Russia spoke Tuesday about that country’s aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. fidgeted with the event pass strung around his neck, then glanced at his watch.

Tuesday’s scene at an event hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington echoed the frosty 2013 meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the two leaders’ body language – Putin’s especially – stole headlines.

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The forum came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia after the U.S. began conducting military exercises near the Russian border with NATO allies in the region, prompting Putin to put his Northern Fleet on full alert.

The animosity was in full display as Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., sat between Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington and Celeste Wallander, a member of Obama’s National Security Council.

“[Russia] should be part of the solution, not the core of the problem,” Wallander said.

The rare side-by-side discussion also came just a month after the most recent diplomatic effort aimed at stemming the violent conflict in eastern Ukraine pitting the government against Russian-backed separatists.

But that agreement, under the auspices of the Minsk protocol, has faced repeated setbacks, and the frustrations, tensions and gap that remains between the key parties were not lost on spectators – or, most likely, the panelists themselves.

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“We were telling them, ‘Start talking to your people. Stop shelling. Start talking,’” Kislyak said of the Ukrainian government in Kiev before pointing to the “long way to go” for Ukraine to be in full compliance of Minsk.

“What is portrayed as Russian aggression in reality is a war of the government in Ukraine against their own people,” Kislyak said.

The Ukrainian and American representatives, meanwhile, pointed to separatist violations and the roadblocks international investigators have faced in accessing separatist-held territory to verify compliance with the terms of the ceasefire.

And Kislyak called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “absolutely” in line with international law, which Wallander, the White House official, described as a flagrant breach of international law and of international agreements aimed at maintaining a peaceful world order.

“The challenge we face right now is not necessarily the disagreements we hear between Ukrainians and Russia, but that Russia as a very powerful … country is not living by those rules,” Wallander said. “We have a lot of issues globally that we would like to work wit Russia on … but we have to have a willing partner that we can trust.”

If not, Wallander said, Russia’s actions could plunge Europe back into a pre-World War II order.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Olexsander Motsyk joined Wallander in warning that extending the current situation in eastern Ukraine threatened the rest of Europe and the world. Other Russian neighbors in the Baltic have become increasingly concerned about Russian aggression in the region, which led to the American military exercises.

There were no diplomatic flourishes or false niceties as all panelists candidly attested to the lack of trust and didn’t aim to underplay the fractured state of relations – particularly between the U.S. and Russia.

Neither Wallander nor Kislyak shied away from the souring of relations between the two countries, relations that have sunk to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Kislyak accused NATO – and by extension the U.S. – of returning to the organization’s original mission of “containing Russia” and highlighted an “instinctively anti-Russian” reaction among U.S. policy-makers which he called “a vestige of the Cold War perceptions.”

Those policies, he said, are making the region “more and more explosive.”

But the strained ties haven’t put an end to all American-Russian cooperation.

The U.S. and Russia continue to work together as two crucial members of the P5+1 bloc negotiating with Iran in Geneva to curb that country’s nuclear program and broader nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

Instead, relations between the U.S. and Russia have become defined by one word.

“Compartmentalization,” Wallander said.