By agreeing in principle to a summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden is reaching for a signature foreign policy win, but accepting massive political and strategic risks that could easily backfire.
Biden’s last-ditch, still-tentative and highly conditioned agreement to meet the Russian President came after a weekend of frenzied diplomacy and alarming new US claims that Russia was about to invade Ukraine.
There are real doubts that the meeting, brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron, will ever take place. The White House said Sunday it will go ahead only “if an invasion hasn’t happened.”
Any summit is contingent on the outcome of talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe this week. That meeting also depends on the condition that Moscow’s troops don’t further encroach into Ukraine.
“Blinken and Lavrov will discuss further if the invasion hasn’t started by then – in which case it’s all off,” an official told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Arlette Saenz.
No timetable or venue for any presidential summit has been set. White House press secretary Jen Psaki also stressed that if Russia chose to invade Ukraine anyway, the US would impose “swift and severe consequences. … And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”
Only hours before news of a possible summit emerged after a late-night call between Macron and Putin – following a previous conversation between the French President and Biden – the US warned it had intelligence suggesting that the Russian strongman had already given his field commanders orders to invade Ukraine. And on Monday morning, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan painted a dire picture of the situation around Ukraine, saying an “extremely violent” attack could happen in the “coming hours or days.”
“It will cost the lives of Ukrainians and Russians, civilians and military personnel alike. But we also have intelligence to suggest that there will be an even greater form of brutality because this will not simply be some conventional war between two armies: It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people, to repress them, to crush them, to harm them,” Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show.
The extreme distrust shared by all parties to the conflict – Russia, Ukraine and Western allies – means this diplomatic breakthrough will hang by a thread. Recent US and Russian exchanges have been characterized by contempt, suspicion and sarcasm. So there’s hardly a guarantee of success if Lavrov and Blinken meet. Any outcome of a summit that preserves Ukraine as a functioning, democratic state would likely be seen as a defeat by Putin.
And the situation around Ukraine’s borders, where more than 150,000 Russian troops are at high alert, is so tense that local clashes could spark a wider conflagration and shut down diplomacy. The US and its allies will also be alive to the possibility that Putin is willing to talk not because he’s blinking in the standoff, but is instead seeking a way to divide America from its friends before an invasion.
But if Putin does hold off from what was seen in Washington as an almost certain fresh incursion into Ukraine, it will count as a temporary success for the White House’s aggressive war of information meant to remove the element of surprise from his vast troop buildup and to thwart any faked rationale for an invasion.
Any time a war is averted, especially one in which the US predicted thousands of civilian casualties, it prevents tragedy, misery and the possibility of destabilizing refugee flows. Therefore it is incumbent on everyone to try. Russia was non-committal on the idea of a summit with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that there were so far “no concrete plans.”
Even France, which helped broker the idea of a meeting between Putin and Biden, cautioned much work needed to be done before they could get together. “We are making our last efforts, the most intense, to avoid the worst,” a source at the French presidential palace told reporters on Monday.
Biden’s political gamble
Even if the apparent agreement for a summit holds Biden will be taking a significant gamble.
Hawkish Republicans are sure to accuse him of appeasing the Russian strongman and of rewarding his aggression in holding Ukraine hostage. If a meeting with Putin fails and an invasion follows regardless, Biden will open himself up to charges of weakness.
Any summit that is not comprehensively choreographed for success beforehand is a political high-wire act. And Biden can ill-afford blows to his prestige, with his approval rankings sliding and after his claims to statesmanship were dented by the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
Still, presidents are elected to make the toughest decisions. If Biden refused to meet and war erupted in Ukraine, he would be accused of not testing diplomacy to its limit. And he has some potential cover: If Putin backtracks and a summit doesn’t happen, he will let Biden off a political hook.
Blinken effectively explained the President’s openness to diplomacy despite his belief that an invasion was imminent during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“We believe President Putin has made the decision, but until the tanks are actually rolling and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward,” Blinken told CNN’s Dana Bash.
The skeptical tone of the White House’s statement explaining Biden’s “in principle” openness to a meeting, however, was not just rooted in suspicion of Russian motives. It also appeared to be an attempt to insulate the President from political attacks at home.
But there are reasons to take the risk. Despite the fact that the US will not send troops to defend Ukraine because it is not a NATO member, Biden has a genuine domestic rationale for avoiding war in Ukraine. Any Russian invasion could cause a spike in already rising gasoline prices and inflation rates that could further harm Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections.
Is Biden playing into Putin’s game?
As well as shouldering a big political risk, Biden will brave treacherous geopolitical ground if he meets Putin.
One theory of the Russian leader’s build-up around Ukraine is that he wants to restore the Kremlin’s Cold War prestige as an equal power of the US. In essence, Biden is granting Putin that platform, even though many in Washington regard Russia as a greatly diminished force, despite its formidable nuclear arsenal.
The same accusation – that a US President was granting the concession of equal prestige – surrounded ex-President Donald Trump’s inconclusive summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. There is little chance of the affection on display at those love-ins being repeated in frosty Biden/Putin talks.
But Putin would also clearly like to debate and decide the great affairs of nations with the US – as was the case during Cold War summits between the US and the Soviet Union. The fact that this potential encounter was arranged by the French will ease some fears in Europe that US allies are being marginalized – a factor that did rear its head early in the Ukraine crisis.
The Élysée Palace said that other “stakeholders” will be included. That could include Ukraine and other NATO allies, including ex-Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe. But the French presidency did not offer further details. The prominent role of Macron, who is seeking to become the dominant European statesman after the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and faces a reelection campaign in a matter of weeks, will not go unnoticed inside or outside of France.
A total disconnect
The most fundamental threat to the success of any Putin-Biden talks is the incompatible nature of the two sides’ positions.
The Russians are demanding an assurance that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and want the alliance to pull weapons and troops out of member states that were once behind the Iron Curtain, like Poland, Hungary and Romania. That condition is non-negotiable for the West, which says it is up to individual nations to decide their destinies.
The US rejects Russian warnings that it feels threatened by NATO’s eastern expansion after the Cold War, styling the alliance as purely defensive. This position might make sense in Western capitals, but it does not take into account bruised Russian pride – the root of Putin’s two-decade effort to reshape the accepted outcome of the Cold War after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
In repeatedly trying to destabilize Ukraine, the Russian leader has also made clear his determination never to allow the former Soviet republic to make an ideological move west towards NATO and the EU. So any face-saving effort could undercut his historic mission and be hard for him to accept.
But if Putin has decided that the costs of an invasion of Ukraine – punishing Western sanctions and a possible bloody insurgency in the country are too much to bear – Biden may be able to construct a diplomatic off-ramp for the Russian leader. There are many issues, including arms control, stemming conflict in cyberspace and thwarting the spread of nuclear weapons, that could make each side safer.
But these issues are hostage to the same fundamental disconnect between Russia and the US that has boiled during the Ukraine conflict – and show why any summit between Biden and Putin will be seen as tentative until it occurs and why success is unlikely.