Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden during a 2021 summit in Geneva. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Getting off your high horse is never easy and it remains to be seen how deftly Moscow will navigate its path in the downstream of President Vladimir Putin’s 50-minute phone conversation last Thursday with his American counterpart Joe Biden. 

Washington highlighted that the conversation took place after Putin’s “request” – meaning, the Kremlin is on the back foot. 

The Russian readout claims that the forthcoming diplomatic engagements in Geneva in the second week of January between Russia and the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) successively will be about “providing Russia with legally binding security guarantees.” But the White House is noncommittal. 

The Kremlin readout claims Biden emphasized that “Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine.” But the US statements failed to acknowledge that. Instead, in a background press call, a senior White House official was categorical that “there were certainly no declarations as to intentions.” 

He firmly reiterated that any “further invasion of Ukraine” on Russia’s part will entail “costs [that] include economic costs, include adjustments and augmentations of NATO force posture in Allied countries, and include additional assistance to Ukraine.” 

The Russian side underscored that Putin told Biden any “large-scale sanctions” would be “a grave error, de facto fraught with the danger of a complete breakdown in Russia-US relations.”

Russian state media highlighted this particular exchange. The White House readout concluded that “substantive progress in these dialogues [in Geneva] can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation.”

On the core issue of a security guarantee, all that Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov would say was: “It seems to me that Washington understands Russia’s concerns, although Washington has its own concerns.”

Vladimir Putin faces some difficult choices. Photo: WikiCommons

Security guarantees?

On the contrary, the senior White House official never mentioned any security guarantees. 

As far as the American side is concerned, apropos of issues related to NATO, “our position is very clear that these are decisions to be made by sovereign countries, obviously in consultation with the Alliance, and not for others to determine” – simply put, Russia has no locus standi on NATO expansion or Ukraine’s NATO membership. 

In essence, Biden showed an exit ramp to Putin. The White House official disclosed that Biden “laid out [to Putin] two paths, two aspects of the US approach that will really depend on Russia’s actions.”

He said: “One is a path of diplomacy leading toward a de-escalation, and the other is a path that’s more focused on deterrence, including serious costs and consequences should Russia choose to proceed with a further invasion of Ukraine.”

Washington estimates that it is speaking to Moscow from a position of advantage. Putin’s conciliatory idiom in the most recent days probably reinforced an impression in the American mind that he’s looking for an exit strategy. 

Meanwhile, Washington has succeeded brilliantly in rallying its European allies – especially the “European Quad counterparts” – and intends to keep up the “very careful and very intensive coordination and transparency among our partners and allies.” 

Washington also set the stage for Biden’s phone conversation with a calibrated power projection. The US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Harry S Truman and its escorts have been positioned in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. On December 27, a US E-8 spy plane flew over eastern Ukraine to collect ground intelligence. 

Two days later, the spy plane had a rerun. This is the first time ever that the US attempted such brazen intelligence gathering on Russian deployments. The mission was undertaken with the permission of the Ukrainian government. 

From the copious output by US think-tankers in recent weeks, the US considers itself to be in a “win-win” situation. The Brookings Institute was plainly dismissive about Russia’s demands, which it considered too outlandish to merit consideration.

The think-tankers in Washington are poring over Russia’s options in binary terms – an outright invasion of Ukraine or a limited incursion plus deployment of Russian troops to Donbas. 

Ukrainian troops conduct a drill with tanks while military activity continues in the Donbas region on April 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Armed Forces of Ukraine / Anadolu Agency

Russia’s options

The latter option is given weight in a report compiled by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War in Washington by a team of experts led by Frederick Kagan, the brother of Robert Kagan who is the husband of Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland.  

It anticipates: “Putin will very likely deploy Russian troops into Belarus this winter … Such a move could dramatically increase the challenge NATO faces defending the Baltic States from future Russian attack because it would put Russian mechanized units on both sides of the narrow Suwalki Corridor through which NATO supplies and reinforcements to the Baltic States must run … And it would put additional Russian troops on the Polish border, increasing the threat to NATO’s eastern flank.” 

Having publicized on December 17 its demand for a written legally bound security guarantee, Moscow is now obliged to stick by it. The US assumption is that Putin is damned either way.

Indeed, if Putin backs down, it will be a massive loss of his public image as the “strongman,” which may even have implications for the 2024 presidential election in Russia. 

Worse still, the West would be emboldened to retain the option to continue with the present “salami tactic” – integrate Ukraine into NATO incrementally while pushing military deployments right up to Russia’s borders.

Bringing Russia down a few notches in its global standing suits American interests worldwide when it is feeling the heat of Moscow’s contestation in global politics.  

Curiously, the US does not take the “China factor” seriously. While there is no let-up in the United States’ confrontational policy toward China and a Cold War-style confrontation is crystallizing, Washington is confident that Beijing will not exacerbate the crisis by risking a military flashpoint through 2022 with the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China due in the second half of the year. 

The consensus among US experts is that Chinese stagecraft will be almost exclusively focused in the coming months on consolidating President Xi Jinping’s legitimacy and power base within the party and country to steer through the CPC Congress his re-election for a third term, a momentous event in Chinese political history since Mao Zedong. 

While China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have close relations, domestic issues will likely keep Beijing on the sidelines. Photo: WikiCommons

The challenges ahead

Herein lies the great danger: With the challenging midterm elections due in November in the US, which Biden is almost certain to lose, he may visualize a political rebound by playing the Russia card, which enjoys bipartisan support. In strategic terms, the United States’ trans-Atlantic leadership also stands to gain. 

The Kremlin leadership faces an existential dilemma. On the one hand, having waded into the midstream, turning back is difficult. On the other hand, the status quo may be seized by NATO to complete the unfinished business of training Russia to become a dancing bear.  

However, what is being blithely overlooked is that in Kiev, there is also a savage power struggle brewing, as the recent attempt by President Volodymyr Zelensky to lock up his predecessor Petro Poroshenko in jail on sedition charges suggests. 

The Pandora Papers have revealed that Zelensky founded a network of offshore companies and his former business partner and employer, a Ukrainian banking and media tycoon named Ihor Kolomoisky (who is also sanctioned by Washington), allegedly laundered US$5.5 billion through a tangle of shell companies. 

In September in Kiev, someone tried to murder Serhiy Shefir, a friend and business partner who is believed to have created a network of offshore entities for Zelensky and others. 

Meanwhile, the stink involving then-vice-president Biden’s son Hunter’s direct link to a corrupt Ukrainian company and its owner still pollutes the air. Forbes magazine recently wrote: “It’s consensus now that Hunter’s foreign relations have hurt American foreign policy in Ukraine.”

The internal and external political changes in Ukraine need to be taken seriously. They may turn out to be the “missing link” in the US narrative. Even if the Biden administration pretends not to notice, Moscow must be watching closely. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.