The two-hour video conference between Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin generated a lot of comments and assessments in the world media. I will try to touch on some points that do not lie on the surface.
In fact, the presidents of the US and Russi communicated for the second time this year. Both times, thanks to the provocative actions of the Kremlin, which this time not only demonstrated muscles on the Ukrainian borders, but was also the mastermind behind the migration crisis on the border of Belarus with its western neighbours. (The reluctance of many EU leaders to acknowledge this fact is noticeably inspired by Vladimir Putin).
Ukraine became for the first time in several years the main topic of discussion for the leaders of the nuclear powers. There is a reason to believe that the Ukrainian issue was given the lion’s share of the time in the talks between Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin. Let me remind you that the President of Russia made a public request for written guarantees from the West not to expand NATO eastwards (read: a guarantee that Ukraine will not join the alliance). It is worth recalling that Ukraine was a non-aligned state in 2014, during the unexpected aggression of Russia, occupation of Crimea and fomenting war in Donbass, but this did not save it from the Russian aggression. The Kremlin’s claims (after Joseph Biden spoke to Vladimir Putin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia demanded that the invitation to join the Alliance that Georgia and Ukraine received at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 be withdrawn) are not just a caprice. Russia is seeking to get the West to reject Ukraine, which is the largest by territory and yet one of the poorest states in Europe. Obviously, turning Ukraine into a grey area would make it a matter of time before Russia attempted its total subjugation.
Russia has learned the peculiarities of Western politics well, and is ready to use them to its own advantage. Vladimir Putin (like the leader of China Xi Jinping) does not depend on the outcome of elections, and believes he can sit out any unpleasant vis-a-vis. As a matter of fact, this has already happened with François Hollande and Angela Merkel. With Joseph Biden the situation is somewhat different: the USA and Russia continue in many ways the Cold War paradigm, especially in recent years when the actions of the Kremlin have become more aggressive. The model developed in the decades since the end of the World War II is far from idyllic, but is recognized in Moscow and Washington as productive.
Hence Joseph Biden is eager to win support of the European allies on the eve of and after his conversation with Vladimir Putin. Except that creating a structure to discuss security issues with Russia (including NATO enlargement) seems illogical. First, relations of Russia with NATO stand at ground zero, and it is worth moving in concert rather than separately. Secondly, involving only the countries of Old Europe, where Russian influence is strong, in the dialogue with Russia has already caused concern for the Bucharest Nine, with whom Joseph Biden spoke between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. I doubt that Poland, Romania and the Baltic States have calmed down and will wait uncomplainingly for the new round of communication between the Presidents of Russia and the United States announced by the Kremlin.
Speaking of Volodymyr Zelensky. His conversation with Joseph Biden remains poorly reported in the Ukrainian media. The explanations of the Head of the Presidential Administration Andriy Yermak, look like primitive propaganda, which the OPU officials are trying to amplify. Volodymyr Zelensky in an interview with the TV channel 1+1 told about the possibility of a nationwide referendum, which in the current situation looks inappropriate, to put it mildly. It is time for the President of Ukraine to seek support from within the country in order to resist the pressure of old enemies and sworn friends united by the desire to rely on the principles of a real politics.
Joseph Biden emphasized that US troops will not be sent to Ukraine (there is no legal basis for this), but in case of Russian aggression (here it is more accurate to talk about its possible expansion), the US will use the economic sanctions that it did not use in 2014. I will recall that back then Joseph Biden was vice-president. And it is not just the notorious disconnection from the SWIFT payment system; the volume of Russian assets placed in the West makes the Kremlin much more vulnerable. Of course, if the US and its partners have the political will.
Two important issues are worth remembering here. Joseph Biden had been to Ukraine several times before he was elected President and was in fact in charge of relations with it in Barack Obama administration after 2014. And this makes him in the eyes of Ukrainian politicians almost the foremost expert on Ukraine. A month ago, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and the US in Washington signed an updated Charter for Strategic Partnership, a framework document that effectively rams the Kremlin through its actions. I should note that Crimea Declaration introduced by Mike Pompeo did not provoke similar insistence of Russia.
Joseph Biden needs to understand that Vladimir Putin is offering him a matryoshka doll – a wooden figure with other, smaller ones lurking inside. The Kremlin will not fully reveal its plans to the White House, but will use any sign of weakness to advance its interests. Ukraine is an inherently high stakes bet that Vladimir Putin will try to play with to gain a strategic advantage. He senses well both the weakness of the Ukrainian leadership and the reluctance of the West to fight, but is hardly capable of ignoring the willingness of millions of Ukrainians to resist. This factor should also be taken into account by the US, of course, if the current ruling team intends to maintain its position in the near future. Joseph Biden, let me remind you, announced that he intends to run in the presidential election of 2024 as well.