The slow-burning military standoff along the Russia–Ukraine border could reach a tipping point next week as the Biden administration enters a series of high-stakes diplomatic meetings with Moscow, and analysts say the U.S. and its NATO allies must seize a golden opportunity to turn the tables and extract their own concessions from the Kremlin.
Despite fears of war, a mostly united front from Washington and its European allies — along with threats of crushing new economic sanctions — at least for now have kept Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching a full-scale ground invasion of Ukraine. Deadly protests and an unfolding political crisis in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, have diverted some of Moscow‘s attention away from Ukraine, with Russian paratroopers arriving Thursday in the embattled former Soviet republic to help restore order.
Against that backdrop, foreign policy specialists say that the U.S. and NATO may have the upper hand heading into next week’s meetings, which begin Monday with direct talks between American and Russian officials in Geneva. Analysts contend that Mr. Putin may be looking for an “off ramp” just weeks after delivering a list of demands to the West, which included promises that Ukraine would never join NATO and new limits on American and NATO troops and military equipment in eastern Europe.
Those demands have been roundly rejected by the West. Now, the U.S. and NATO could use next week’s talks to make their own demands, including that Moscow cease its military backing of pro-Russian separatists operating in Ukraine‘s Donbas region, begin withdrawing troops from the Crimean peninsula it forcibly annexed in 2014, and even preliminary talks on a new intermediate-range nuclear weapons treaty.
Mr. Putin has forced the issue of Ukraine onto the international agenda with a massive build-up this year of forces near the border with Kyiv, which some have warned could be a prelude to an invasion. But Mr. Biden is not without assets to play in the crisis, analysts say.
“We should go into these discussions next week with our own list of good outcomes. … We have some things that we think, if agreed, would make Europe more secure, and make the United States more secure, and ultimately make Russia more secure. There are things we ought to put on the table,” said William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now the vice president of strategic stability and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“No one knows what’s in [Mr. Putin‘s] head, but things aren’t working out so well for him right now. He‘s probably worried that his Russia-friendly government in Kazakhstan is maybe crumbling, or certainly it’s under attack,” Mr. Taylor told The Washington Times in an interview. “The other reason he might be looking for an off-ramp is that the Biden administration and the Europeans have been pretty clear and pretty explicit and pretty consistent, and even pretty united, about what would happen if Putin comes across [and invades Ukraine]. He may not have anticipated that degree of unity or determination on the part of the Europeans and the Americans.”
‘An atmosphere of escalation’
Indeed, the U.S. and its allies seem to be on the same page heading into next week’s high-powered meetings. Following the U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva on Monday, Russian officials will meet with NATO leaders in Brussels on Wednesday, followed by a Thursday discussion in Vienna with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a forum that also includes Ukraine.
Top Biden administration officials have made clear that a host of issues will be on the table. They include long-term arms control deals such as a replacement for the defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, which the Trump administration exited after Russia allegedly violated its terms.
But those big-picture discussions will come second, officials said. Any progress must begin with Russia pulling back its troops from its border with Ukraine and cooling down the sky-high tensions between the two nations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week.
“The real question is whether Russia is serious about diplomacy, serious about de-escalation,” he said at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday alongside German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
“It’s important that we begin these conversations. I think if they’re going to bear fruit, if they’re going to show real progress, that will require de-escalation,” Mr. Blinken said. “It’s very hard to make actual progress in any of these areas in an atmosphere of escalation and threat with a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.”
But the administration also faces criticism in some quarters for slow-walking support for Ukraine and not moving quickly enough to ramp up American military presence in eastern Europe.
The White House has delivered major financial aid packages to Ukraine and has publicly warned Russia that it will send additional weapons to Kyiv in the event of Russian aggression. But some specialists argue President Biden, who has ruled out American troops fighting in Ukraine, ought to be more aggressive.
“The sequence is wrong. The weapons should be sent now and the force posture should be enhanced in [eastern Europe] now, telling Moscow that we can always pull them back once you stop your build-up along Ukraine‘s borders,” John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said Thursday at a virtual Atlantic Council forum.
While the U.S. and its European allies may have a strong hand at next week’s meetings, other analysts warn that Mr. Putin remains deeply unpredictable and that he still believes a military play in Ukraine could pay long-term dividends.
“I think he believes that if he can execute an effective military campaign in Ukraine using all these new tools, paralyzing NATO, creating anxiety and fear in eastern Europe. … He thinks he can push and get NATO to split, to fractionate, and undercut the U.S. role in Europe and ultimately drive the United States out of its position in Europe,” said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.
“He wants to shatter NATO. He’s thinking big,” Mr. Clark said at Thursday’s Atlantic Council event.