Biden aims to prevent Russia-Ukraine conflict, but time is running out
Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during the Valdai Discussion Club’s plenary meeting, on October,21,2021, in Sochi, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a stark warning against attacking Ukraine during a video call Tuesday, but experts say time is running out for the U.S. to prevent further hostilities between the neighboring countries.
The call comes amid fears that Russia is planning on launching some form of military action against Ukraine following Russian military troop movements on the border and increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards Kiev from Moscow.
For his part, Putin said on Nov. 30 that Russia was concerned about military exercises in Ukraine being carried out near the border, saying these posed a threat to Moscow.
He has insisted that Russia is free to move troops around its own territory and has denied claims that the country could be preparing to invade Ukraine, calling such notions “alarmist.”
Close followers of Russian politics are not convinced that Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine — which was a part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991 — are benign, however.
Many experts (and Ukrainian leaders) believe that Putin — who said in 2005 that the break up of the union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” — harbors a desire to rebuild the Soviet empire, with Russia often seeking to extend, or impose, its influence on former Soviet republics like Belarus and Ukraine. Russia opposes Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO, and its neighbor, the EU.
Experts are also unconvinced that Biden, and allied nations in Europe, can find a compromise with Putin, warning that the window of opportunity to find a peaceful resolution to growing tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the wider West is closing.
Russia expert Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said the Putin-Biden call would likely be “very difficult” and that it was “hard to see where the compromises will come from.”
“Putin wants security guarantees on no further NATO enlargement, non-aligned status for Ukraine and limitations on Ukraine’s rearmament and NATO troop presences in Ukraine. Biden cannot give these, and Ukraine would never agree — unless under extreme duress,” Ash said in a note Monday evening.
“Biden will use the stick of sanctions and the carrot of more talks to try and buy time for Ukraine to continue to build its defences. [The] question is, is Putin prepared to wait?”
Ash added that Putin may well be thinking that now is the best time to enforce his will on Ukraine and the West.
Ahead of the call, the Kremlin said on Tuesday morning that it seeks “good, predictable ties with the U.S.” and “has never planned to attack anyone,” Reuters reported. However, it added: “We have our red lines.”
The Kremlin also said it doesn’t expect a breakthrough in the Biden-Putin meeting, but called for cool heads, noting that Putin was ready to listen to Biden’s concerns and to set out his own.
What Russia wants
There have been reports of an increase in Russian troops on Ukraine’s border for weeks, movements which have led NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to warn that NATO members should prepare for the worst when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.
“You can discuss whether the likelihood for an incursion is 20% or 80%, it doesn’t matter. We need to be prepared for the worst,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Nov.30 after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia.
“There is no certainty, no clarity about exactly what are the Russian intentions, and they may actually evolve and change,” the NATO chief added, noting “they’ve done it before” referring to Crimea.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has been accused of sending troops and weapons to support pro-Russian uprisings in two self-proclaimed republics in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, although Moscow denies this.
Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Monday that: “Putin is being much blunter about what he wants in Ukraine and the lengths to which he is prepared to go to obtain it.”
“In just a few days, Putin has said that he wants a deal to prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO. He also wants a Western promise never to deploy NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine,” Samorukov said in an editorial.
He added that, over the last year, the Kremlin has had to messages for the U.S. “First, Russia attaches paramount importance to Ukraine. Second, its patience with the status quo is running thin, and it is ready to take drastic measures to reverse the situation.”
An unclassified U.S. intelligence document obtained by Reuters shows Russian military activity on the territory of Russia and Russian-annexed Crimea close to the border with Ukraine.
“Putin wants Biden to finally face up to an unpleasant dilemma. The message is simple: Washington needs to brace itself for its partner Ukraine to be soundly defeated militarily in what would be an especially humiliating re-run of recent events in Afghanistan. Or it can back down and reach a compromise with Moscow over Ukraine,” Samorukov said.
The Kremlin appears to be under no illusions that the first option would inflict huge costs on Russia’s economy and international standing, he added, “but it wants to convince the United States that it is prepared to bear those costs because of the importance of Ukraine for Russian national interests.”
U.S., European and NATO officials have all warned Russia against any military aggression against Ukraine, telling Moscow that this would have serious political and economic consequences, which is already under international sanctions for its annexing of Crimea.
As Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the military alliance is under no obligation to defend the country. As such, just how far the U.S. and EU might go to protect Ukraine is uncertain.
The leaders of France, the U.S., U.K., Germany and Italy spoke on Monday evening, according to a Downing Street spokesperson, about rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
“They emphasised the need to provide a united front in the face of Russian threats and hostility,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that they were calling on “Russia to de-escalate tensions and reaffirmed their staunch support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
The leaders will speak again following Biden’s conversation with Putin, the spokesperson added. The Putin-Biden video call expected to take place around 3p.m. London time, according to Reuters.
Russia itself does not appear to have high hopes for the meeting. On Monday, the eve of the call, the Kremlin described the state of U.S.-Russia relations as ” quite lamentable,” Reuters said.
In the meantime, Russia continues to look eastwards towards Asia for trade and diplomatic ties. Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday signed more than two dozens deals across a variety of sectors, and agreed to cooperate on regional security, during a bilateral meeting in New Delhi on Monday.