A video call on Tuesday between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin promises to be one of the most difficult and consequential encounters between US and Russian leaders since the cold War. After positioning 90,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, Russia has begun to signal what it aims to achieve. The Kremlin has said Putin will demand an agreement to “exclude any further Nato expansion eastward” to encompass Ukraine. Biden has rightly said he cannot provide such a guarantee. Deterring Russian aggression, while attempting to resolve the Nato conundrum without betraying Ukraine’s security or hopes for greater western integration, is the key to defusing tensions that pose a threat to stability in Europe.
In reality, it is the Kremlin’s actions since the 2014 pro-democracy uprising that toppled Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovich that have left a majority of Ukrainians now in favour of joining Nato. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of a separatist conflict in east Ukraine convinced many previously agnostic citizens that they need the alliance’s protection.
Russia has also moved its red lines. Ukraine has not been granted a “membership action plan” that would be a step towards joining Nato. But Putin now argues “Nato” arms on its soil amount to a form of creeping, de facto membership — though Kyiv sought these defensive weapons to help it contain the Russian-supported eastern insurgency.
An unfortunate irony of today’s situation is that while Russia is convinced Nato membership for its neighbour is only a matter of time, there is no consensus in the alliance in favour of it joining, which some countries see as a step too far. Blocking membership, however, would contravene a key post-cold war principle that European countries are free to choose their own alliances. Some western leaders also share Kyiv’s concerns that Moscow would treat such a declaration as carte blanche to march into Ukraine.
For those reasons, Biden cannot provide the legal commitments Moscow is trying to extort. The US president’s first task must be to leave no doubt that further aggression against Ukraine would be met with sanctions that would impose an intolerable cost on Russia. Tony Blinken, secretary of state, says the US is preparing “high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past”. It must be prepared to follow through and EU partners must join them.
Biden should at the same time send a message that the US and western partners are prepared to engage in talks with Moscow on reforming a European security architecture that looks increasingly precarious — subject to conditions. One must be that all Russian troops and hardware first return to their permanent bases.
The US president must also make clear there can be no return to zones of influence in Europe imposed by force; the Putin circle have repeatedly hinted they are seeking a “new Yalta” — referring to the 1945 meeting where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt carved up postwar Europe. Ukraine’s future cannot be negotiated — as Moscow wants — over the head of Kyiv, or its choice of allies blocked by threats or diktat. Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Donbas must be part of any negotiation.
Even sitting down for such talks would risk appearing to reward Moscow for aggression; making them a success would require bold and creative diplomacy. The US approach should combine toughness with incentives that in effect call the Russian leader’s bluff — and challenge him to break out of the perilous downward spiral in relations that he is creating.