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This ominous threat of major ground war in Europe hangs over President Biden’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. Though the virtual summit was only announced over the weekend, Kremlin officials have stressed that the issues in the relationship have been brewing for some time. “The Augean stables in our bilateral relations can hardly be cleaned out over several hours of negotiations,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s TV Channel One on Monday.
Forget the allusion to myth — the Russian position on Ukraine is mired in realpolitik. Putin has staked out that Ukraine is part of its sphere of influence and is betting that the Kremlin cares more about its neighbor than the United States does. The United States has threatened sanctions, but to some in Moscow, that’s nothing: Russia is already sanctioned to the hilt and has prepared for worse to come. For Putin, if it’s a gamble, it’s a calculated one.
My colleagues Isabelle Khurshudyan and Paul Sonne report that Putin is expected to issue Biden an ultimatum during their video meeting Tuesday: NATO should never expand into Ukraine. But the Western military alliance has repeatedly suggested Ukraine should be allowed to choose its own future and Biden has pushed back on the ultimatum publicly. “I won’t accept anybody’s red line,” the U.S. leader said Friday.
And so Putin’s hand looks dicey indeed.
Agreed positions with @SecBlinken before the phone conversation of Presidents Biden and Putin. Agreed to continue joint & concerted action. Grateful to 🇺🇸 strategic partners & allies for the continued support of our sovereignty & territorial integrity. Nothing about 🇺🇦 without 🇺🇦— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) December 6, 2021
Would Putin really go to war with Ukraine? The long-standing Russian leader, in control of Russia in some way for more than two decades, remains as inscrutable as a sphinx. After being caught out on the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, many analysts are hesitant to suggest that his actions along the Ukrainian border are just for show.
“Putin doesn’t bluff,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the head of the R.Politik think tank, in a call with journalists. “He has put on the table this option of military operation toward Ukraine, and he is intending to implement it if he fails to obtain what he would like to obtain from the United States.”
However, even if the threat of war is real, it could still be motivated by a desire for negotiations. Last spring, when there was a similar, though smaller, buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, the United States responded by offering Putin an in-person summit in Geneva. Though that event was carefully managed to avoid giving Russia the upper hand — Putin, frequently late in meetings with other world leaders, was arranged to arrive first at the venue — the fact that it happened at all showed the Kremlin had made Russia a priority for Biden’s foreign policy.
Putin was a “worthy adversary,” Biden admitted to reporters ahead of the meeting. “There has been no hostility,” Putin told reporters after their June conversation. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”
There have been some signs of a thaw between Moscow and Washington recently. Last week, diplomats from the two nations reached a tentative deal that would allow visas for U.S. diplomats in Russia.
Ukraine, however, is a different beast. It occupies an important place in Russian history, forming, along with Belarus, the medieval Kievan Rus that both Russia and Ukraine claim laid the foundation of their states. In a recent article, Putin described Russians and Ukrainians as one people and said “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
But Ukraine has been an independent nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago; despite Putin’s claims of brotherhood, Kyiv’s relations with Moscow soured under his tenure. Protests that erupted in 2013 led to the ouster of a Moscow-leaning president, who fled to Russia. Then there was the annexation of Crimea and eight years of grinding war in Ukraine’s east, where Russian-speaking separatists fought the government with not-so-subtle Kremlin backing.
Ukraine is not likely to join NATO anytime soon, particularly given the endemic corruption in the country and a lack of institutional momentum. But pro-Western sentiment in the country is significant. Demands for greater ties with the European Union were a key driving force behind the 2013 protests and at least a plurality of Ukrainians are now in favor of membership, if not more, depending on the poll.
Though their own actions created the situation, Russian officials fear Ukraine’s deepening military ties to the United States and its allies. Officials in Moscow have complained about Western arms sales to Ukraine, as well as recent flights by U.S. strategic bombers over the Black Sea near Russian borders. Ukraine may not be a NATO member, but it acts like one.
“The Kremlin increasingly views Ukraine as a Western aircraft carrier parked just across from Rostov Oblast in southern Russia,” Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last month.
"U.S. intelligence has found the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive as soon as early next year involving up to 175,000 troops"— Rob Lee (@RALee85) December 4, 2021
"The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel"https://t.co/05B5kC3iLb pic.twitter.com/PD1XMyUYxj
Tuesday’s summit is unlikely to end Putin’s paranoia about Ukraine. Ruling out any future NATO membership for Ukraine is a nonstarter for the United States, if nothing else because any promise made on that front could be reversed by future leaders, making it a moot point. In Washington and other European capitals, there may be frustration with Kyiv, but it is dwarfed by anger at Russian belligerence.
There may be small steps that the United States and its allies could make that would lower the temperature. One idea, put forward by experts like Steven Pifer and Angela Stent, is that the United States could step into the Normandy process aimed at mediating a resolution between Russia and Ukraine, which currently includes France and Germany. There could even be a total rethink of the Minsk II agreement that has hung over Russia-Ukraine relations since 2015, never fully administered and still a bone of contention.
Stent, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that Biden needs to think more like Putin on Ukraine and get some of that sphinx-like inscrutability going for the United States. Though the United States has hinted at major sanctions against Russia, including a potential disconnection from SWIFT, the U.S. banking data system, some analysts suggest it’s time for a new playbook. “That would be the mother of all sanctions,” Russian scholar Artom Lukin tweeted Monday, before adding, “Iran and North Korea have long been disconnected from SWIFT. Has it changed their behavior?”
The risk of miscalculation is high, however, and even the more hopeful analysts are concerned about the threat of conflict. As Carnegie’s Rumer said, “It’s difficult to reengage with someone who basically is holding a gun to your head.”