Russian President Vladimir Putin, following the playbook of 20th century tyrants, is threatening full-scale war against Ukraine to get … something. Putin’s demands keep shifting: no Ukrainian membership in NATO, no Western military relations with Ukraine, a new security order in Europe, no offensive missiles stationed in Ukraine (something the U.S. has not considered or even imagined). The Kremlin’s “red lines” seem improvised. But the underlying demand seems clear: The U.S. and Europe must recognize that Ukraine — not a sovereign nation in Putin’s view — belongs under Kremlin control. To back that up, the Kremlin has built up its forces on Ukraine’s border. Is this an attempt to extract concessions without war? Or is it preparation for real war — a land war in Europe in the dead of winter, during a pandemic, generating a new wave of refugees — that could come with dramatic suddenness?
That’s what U.S. President Joe Biden faced in his Dec. 7 “virtual” meeting with Putin. The Biden national security team didn’t seek this test. They wanted, reasonably enough, to put relations with Russia on a “stable and predictable” footing so that they could concentrate on China, arguably a bigger strategic challenge in the 21st century. But, as past U.S. presidents have learned, Putin has little interest in “stable and predictable” except on his terms — a free hand for repression at home and domination of selected neighbors like Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus, including by force. No U.S. president, with the exception of Donald Trump (though not his administration as a whole), was willing to accept these terms.
In the run-up to the meeting, U.S. signals were initially mixed: A senior administration official spoke a couple of times with The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and offered what seemed, even at the time, excessive optimism about U.S.-Russian cyber cooperation. As the Russian military buildup and threats to Ukraine mounted, an administration official again spoke with Ignatius, lamenting the problem but stressing that the U.S. wanted “an eventual diplomatic deal on Ukraine that would give Putin much of what he wanted.”
Given Putin’s tendentious interpretation of the “Minsk framework” — the framework agreed to by Russia and Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 for a settlement of the conflict in the Donbas, the part of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow’s “separatist” clients — giving Putin much of what he wanted meant undermining Ukrainian sovereignty. That formula, whether by design or clumsiness, raised concerns in Kyiv and questions among European and U.S. observers about the administration’s intentions.
There have been some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment in and out of government who believe that Washington has no real interests in Ukraine. But the U.S. does have an interest in not allowing tyrants, especially in Europe, to attack with impunity or conquer other European countries. Two world wars and the Cold War established that with a huge commitment in American lives. Putin’s destruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty would lead to additional and worse consequences in Europe and beyond (like the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan). Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping would see the advantage and press it.
Fortunately, the Biden team moved fast to correct the impression of excessive solicitude toward the Kremlin and shore up a stronger position (which was, in fact, the starting point for most of the administration from the outset). Experts prepared strong sanctions escalation options and, better yet, worked on them with key European governments and the EU. Potential sanctions include hitting the Russian financial sector hard, including big Russian state banks and other major state corporations (like the insurance giant Sogaz), and going after Russian sovereign debt. That’s a significant package.
The U.S. shared its intelligence about the Russian military buildup with the Ukrainians, NATO and NATO allies. And in a show of diplomatic skill, Secretary of State Antony Blinken used last week’s NATO and OSCE ministerial meetings to firm up Western support for Ukraine and frame the Minsk diplomatic framework in a way that left no room for Putin’s interpretation to form the basis of negotiations. In his remarks at the OSCE ministerial meeting in Stockholm, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in attendance, Blinken went through Russia’s violations of (and Ukraine’s adherence to) the Minsk framework in biting detail, befitting his background as a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton. If there was any question of the U.S. government suddenly throwing itself in with Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk framework, Blinken killed it on the spot.
In the run-up to his meeting with Putin, Biden himself stressed U.S. determination to support Ukraine and to hit Russia hard with sanctions should it attack; and he called key European allies to affirm a solid Western stance against Putin’s aggression. Blinken called more, including his Polish counterpart. The White House rejected Kremlin efforts to solicit U.S. concessions at Ukraine’s expense, such as a promise never to invite Ukraine to join NATO. (Not new, either: In his first foreign policy speech as vice president, Biden declared that Russia would have no veto over NATO enlargement decisions.) So going into the call, the president did what presidents are supposed to do in such situations: rally the West and lay out positions based on intra-allied consultations.
According to the White House readout of the call, Biden maintained that stronger U.S. line. He reiterated the U.S. warning of “strong economic and other measures” if Putin ordered a military escalation, spoke of concerns shared by the U.S. and European allies, reiterated support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and called for a return to diplomacy.
Given the way Blinken had rightly put blame on the Kremlin for failure to fulfil Minsk’s terms, a call for diplomacy should be seen as based on our accurate, and not the Kremlin’s tendentious, reading of Minsk’s terms (that start with a ceasefire and withdrawal of foreign forces from the Donbas, which Moscow has not respected). The presidents also agreed that their teams should be in touch, though Biden made clear that the U.S. will do so in close coordination with its allies and partners (read: Ukraine), meaning no separate U.S.-Russia deal over Ukraine’s head.
The White House readout provided by national security adviser Jake Sullivan combined warnings with U.S. support for diplomatic engagement, looking for the right balance of stick and carrot. Sullivan threw in the threat to block Nord Stream 2 should Russia invade Ukraine, noting that he had been in discussions with the Germans about this.
Of course, the White House interpretation of the call is not the last word; the Kremlin put out its own version, defensive in tone, that asked for guarantees of no further NATO enlargement and deployment of “offensive strike weapons in the states adjacent to Russia,” which would include NATO members such as the Baltic States and Poland. The Kremlin statement did not suggest that Biden had agreed to these conditions.
Putin must make his decision whether to launch a war or step back. Still, judging by U.S. diplomacy over the past week and the initial take of the Biden-Putin call, the divisions in the West and distractions in Washington that Putin may have been counting on were not in evidence. Neither the West nor Ukraine are as weak as he supposes. The danger of war remains but is, perhaps, lessened after this call.