The video call between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin lasted about two hours. It will take months to figure out if the two sides managed to defuse the crisis over Ukraine.
Biden sought to send a clear message: Russia must not go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine as the U.S. fears it might, and would face massive economic sanctions if it does. Putin, meanwhile, wanted the U.S. to know that Russia won’t tolerate NATO expanding farther east or deploying weapons in Ukraine.
Biden didn’t accede to Putin’s “red line” demands. And Putin made no promise to withdraw the 175,000 troops he’s amassing along the Ukrainian border. That highlighted how U.S. officials appeared to have no new clarity on the fundamental question at the heart of this most recent standoff with Russia — whether Putin intends to invade Ukraine a second time, after taking Crimea in 2014.
In the short term, the call on Tuesday appeared to be another victory for the Russian leader, who has made a specialty of keeping America guessing about his intentions. After a face-to-face meeting in June and three phone calls with Biden since January, Putin cemented his status as a force whose desires must be taken into account as the Biden administration seeks to shore up its alliances with European nations and Ukraine.
“Putin already got part of what he wanted, which was this call,” said Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “Every time Putin creates a crisis and the U.S. president reaches out to him, it advances Putin’s objective of reestablishing Russia as a power to be reckoned with.”
Hours after the call concluded, both sides were quick to declare they’d achieved what they set out to do. The Biden administration detailed the sanctions it’s ready to impose on Russia if it attacks Ukraine, penalties that the U.S. says would cripple the country’s finances. Administration officials also said they expect Germany would halt completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia in the event of an invasion.
Biden’s team also made clear that any invasion would backfire on Putin. Rather than splitting Ukraine off from the west, the U.S. will send more defensive weaponry to the country. And the U.S. would be willing to deploy more troops to NATO allies where American forces are already in heavy rotation. At the same time, Biden said he would be willing to discuss European strategic issues.
“There was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands on all of these issues,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. “He’s not doing this to saber rattle. He’s not doing it to make idle threats. He’s doing it to be clear and direct with both the Russians and with our European allies.”
The challenge for Biden is that Putin holds most of the cards. His invasion of Crimea in 2014 and backing of separatists in Ukraine’s east demonstrated that he’s willing to commit ground troops and massive resources to the Ukraine fight, something the U.S. and its allies have never been willing to do.
The early readout from Russia was positive. The Kremlin described the call as constructive, with Putin aide Yuri Ushakov telling reporters that the two leaders joked, exchanged compliments and reminisced about the alliance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in World War II.
He welcomed the U.S. agreement for further talks on Russia’s concerns about NATO enlargement and western military aid to Ukraine, which Putin blamed for fueling tensions. Ushakov also highlighted Biden’s agreement to let Russia visit diplomatic facilities that the U.S. confiscated amid tension over the last few years.
But asked if Putin had committed to pull back Russian troops massed near the border, Ushakov was dismissive, saying, “Where should we withdraw our troops to — they’re on Russian territory.”
“Acknowledging each other’s security concerns is key,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said on Twitter. “War fears in West will not subside just yet, but jaw jaw is better than war war.”
Although Biden’s desire for clarity may have given Putin a better sense for where the U.S. stands, the difficulty for Biden is that Putin thrives on keeping his adversaries off kilter.
While Biden is seeking to calm the rhetoric over Ukraine and focus on other issues — such as his domestic agenda, the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat posed by China — Putin seems to gain in influence every time his moves provoke new alarm in the White House.
“The source of Putin’s leverage over the U.S. is for Russia to be inherently unstable and unpredictable,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. and Europe want to de-escalate tensions, but the Kremlin seeks escalation to gain Western concessions.”
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