The Russian pipe layer vessel Akademik Cherskiy in waters off Kaliningrad in 2020 as construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline neared completion. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Golenkov / Sputnik

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of and send so-called “peacekeepers” to the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine can only be de-escalated by US President Joe Biden hosting a summit meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at Camp David.

Otherwise, this crisis could surpass the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in gravity if NATO members Poland and Lithuania decide unilaterally to blockade the port of Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad, the Russian Baltic Sea port enclave surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, has now become the new red line. Poland and the three Baltic states – all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – have made it clear that economic sanctions will not be enough if Russia moves forward by annexing another piece of Ukrainian territory after the Crimea land grab in 2014.

Severstal CEO Alexey Mordashov commenting on economic sanctions after Crimea annexation in 2014

Any blockade of Kaliningrad by Poland and Lithuania, such as cutting off land access to troops or vehicles headed to the enclave or cutting off shipping supplies, would create the “Sum of All Fears” for NATO and Russian military chiefs of staff because of the uncertain outcome of combat between Russian and Polish-Lithuanian soldiers.

“People also need to remember that every Russian two-star general has control of a tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapon,” retired US Army Brigadier-General Ernie Audino, former director of the US Joint Chiefs nuclear command, has said.

Putin’s not so carefully crafted statement recognizing the so-called People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk leaves a very narrow channel for a summit between Biden and Putin as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron or a Putin-Zelensky summit as proffered by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

A critical next questions is whether Draghi will go ahead with an announced meeting with Putin in Moscow this week. The former European Central Bank president, unlike most European leaders and Biden, has avoided inflammatory rhetoric and instead engaged Putin on issues of direct national interest such as gas supply guarantees and the importance of Russian-Italian trade.

Italy, a country with few natural resources and no nuclear power plants, imports 40% of its natural gas from Russia and would be thrown into a deep recession if Russia cut off European gas supplies in response to economic sanctions by the United States and EU member countries.

While the most experienced Russian hands such as former US ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock always believed a full-fledged Russian ground invasion was a high-stake bluff by Putin, the recognition of the separatist areas was the card Putin was always prepared to play if he could not find a path out of devastating Western sanctions that have already cost the Russian economy more than a US$1 trillion.

However, Biden can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by hosting Putin, Zelensky and possibly Draghi at Camp David in the Maryland countryside in the same way then-president Jimmy Carter did in forging the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978.

Behind closed doors, CIA director and former US ambassador to Moscow William J Burns, along with US Attorney General Merrick Garland and US Commerce Secretary and former Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, should advise and help Putin and Zelensky reach a definitive and binding agreement to end all hostilities and resolve outstanding issues.

Draghi can offer Ukraine the carrot that it truly seeks, a date for full membership in the European Union. 

It was the fateful decision by kleptocratic Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych to reject a Ukrainian-European Association agreement in favor of Moscow largesse that triggered the popular and violent Maidan uprising that led to Yanukovych’s ouster and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist republics with their closed steel works and crumbling coal mines.

Biden’s Camp David summit between Putin and Zelensky could also achieve a prime US objective of weakening or ending Russia’s default alliance with China. China, and not the United States, has always posed the existential threat to Russia’s territorial integrity, as witnessed by the Sino-Soviet war of 1969 and the recent violent riots in Russia’s near abroad, Kazakhstan.

A Camp David summit where Putin and Zelensky can hammer out a binding agreement – including reparations for Crimea and autonomy for Donbas – could begin the first step of returning US-Russian relations to its pinnacle under US president Abraham Lincoln and Czar Alexander II. 

A 2028 entry date for Ukraine to join the European Union would finally kickstart economic, political, and rule-of-law reforms to bring the agriculture, manufacturing, and SME giant to the same level as its economic-miracle neighbor, Poland.

Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.