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Joe Biden is left guessing over Putin’s ultimate aim in Ukraine

Donetsk: In this image released by Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service, Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Thursday. (AP)Premium
Donetsk: In this image released by Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service, Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Thursday. (AP)

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.

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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 further east or deploying weapons in Ukraine.

The talks were “very open, substantive and constructive," Putin told reporters in Sochi on Wednesday. Russia can’t but be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and “we proceed from the assumption that our concerns will be heard, at least this time," he said, adding that the two sides agreed to set up a body to examine the issue in detail and that Russia would submit its proposals within a week.

Biden didn’t accede to Putin’s “red line" demands. And Putin made no promise to withdraw the 175,000 troops the U.S. says 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. 

Both sides said they got their messages across and were cautiously hopeful it would bring if not an easing of tensions, at least a break in the relentless escalation of recent weeks. 

“Biden needed to show that he was ready to take active measures," said Victoria Y. Zhuravleva, a foreign-policy expert at state-run think tank IMEMO in Moscow. “Putin demonstrated that he has a tough position but is ready to talk."

“Each side performed in the way it likes to see itself," she said.

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.

NATO has said it’s open to membership for Ukraine and other countries provided they meet the membership criteria, but has shown no sign it’s willing to accept an application any time soon. 

While every country has the right to choose its own security arrangements “this should be done in such a way so as not to violate the interests of other parties and not to undermine the security of other countries -- in this case, Russia," Putin told reporters in Sochi after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

It’s “very positive that there was a long discussion" between Putin and Biden, Mitsotakis said. “I hope that there will be a roadmap for mutual de-escalation, because otherwise we will be led to situations that will take us many decades back and this is, I think, something that no one seeks nor wants."

For its part, 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 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.

“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," said Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Tuesday’s call “will bring a de-escalation for a short period," said Zhuravleva of IMEMO. “It’s obvious this conflict won’t be resolved."

Russia’s Readout

Putin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters after the talks that the two leaders joked, exchanged compliments and reminisced about the alliance between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. 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."

 

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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