Joe Biden is preparing for a virtual summit with Vladimir Putin to stave off the threat of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The summit was announced by the Kremlin. The White House has not confirmed this, but a spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said that “high-level diplomacy is a priority for the president,” referring to the conference call meeting with Xi Jinping in early November.
The stakes could hardly be higher. China is threatening Taiwan, while Russia is arming Ukraine with military force. In either case, the US could be drawn into conflict, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov told the Military Times on Saturday that Russia has more than 92,000 soldiers at Ukraine’s borders and is preparing to attack in January or February. Others say the threat is not so immediate and that Russia has much to lose in invading Ukraine, but few, if any, experts would completely rule out an invasion.
When confronted with Putin over Ukraine, every political option Biden has at his disposal is fraught with risk.
In a statement on Wednesday commemorating the Holodomor famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s, Biden affirmed “our unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. Such statements of support are intended as a deterrent, but every time they are repeated they exacerbate the dilemma Biden will face when Putin announces his bluff.
“I am honestly concerned that if we, the United States, continue to make ironclad commitments to Ukraine, putting ourselves in a position where we are bound to defend it or not to defend it, and appear utterly weak “We’re going to be in a very difficult position,” said Rajan Menon, professor of political science at the City University of New York.
CNN has reported that there is an urgent political debate in the government over whether to step up supplies of weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Some in the government say such weapons add to the cost of any Russian military incursion and thereby affect Putin’s calculations. Others argue that this is a dangerous escalation and would increase fears of an attack by the US or NATO, which is the basis of Russia’s aggressive military stance.
“You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Fiona Hill, a former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council.
Hill helped prepare Donald Trump’s summit meetings with Putin and advised the Biden team ahead of his first meeting as president with the Russian head of state in June. She said new conversations were urgent and essential, but contained pitfalls that Biden should avoid.
“The problem right now is the way Russia presents the Ukraine issue as a very blatant decision: The United States capitulate to Ukrainian sovereignty – not just over the heads of Ukraine, but also across Europe – or risk one all-out war, ”said Hill. called. She added that the Kremlin has long wanted to return to the Cold War paradigm, in which the two superpowers sit down and decide on spheres of influence.
One of the solutions being circulated is to allay Russia’s fears by excluding Ukraine from future NATO membership and curtailing its military capabilities, but Hill says doing so will render Ukraine’s sovereignty pointless and set a harmful precedent would create.
“We can hold a virtual summit. We can sit with the United States and Russia, but Ukraine cannot be on the negotiating table. We can talk about strategic stability, but we are unable to negotiate Ukraine away, ”said Hill. “And it can’t just be the United States. The Europeans have to take that seriously. “
Menon, co-author of the 2015 book Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, suggested that the immediate threat was exaggerated. He said that well before the current crisis, there were 87,000 Russian soldiers in the region bordering Ukraine, and that region is broad. Some of the troops are currently more than 700 kilometers from the actual border, he said.
“Even assuming that Russia could throw 100,000 soldiers into battle, it would not have calculated the numerical advantage (generally 3: 1) to overwhelm a Ukrainian army that, for all its flaws, is now better trained and equipped is and has better morale than in 2014, “he said.
“Also, the further west Russia will advance, the more it will expand its supply lines, risk hit-and-run attacks aimed at disrupting them, and encounter areas with a greater proportion of (unfriendly) ethnic Ukrainians. These problems and the fact that Putin would burn all bridges to the West by invading Ukraine are either ignored or neglected in the prevailing narratives here. “
That doesn’t mean that Putin would ultimately not launch an invasion if Russia’s red lines were crossed, Menon said.
“We shouldn’t think that the going gets tough when they say we won’t allow Ukraine to join NATO … that they’re just bluffing. I don’t think they’re bluffing. “