Biden – Putin video summit, December 7, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden have held urgent talks as Ukraine (and the West) fears a Russian invasion and Russia sees Ukraine’s preparedness to take Donbass region back to Kiev’s mastery by force. Other issues on the agenda may have been a larger security assessment of Europe and some international topics like Iran case.

In the context of highly up-heated conditions, President Biden and Putin, together with their close experts, managed to get even a minimum result in their talks, or so it seems. The expectations for the talks were low or very low.

The Western media had drummed the immediate threat of Russian large-scale military invasion in Ukraine for weeks and speculated how severe sanctions there will be taken in use, to punish Russia and crush its economy. On the other hand, Russia has denied any intention to proceed a military operation around or in Ukraine and accentuating “red lines” while Russian media has told the preparedness of Ukrainian armed forces to use force taking back Donbass region.

However, in spite of all tense circumstances, it seems that some kind of substantive talks did take place; length of the conversation over 2h, experts present, tone following the meeting and the fact that the meeting was held altogether. It is worth to notice US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan affirmed after the event that “There is no substitute for direct dialogue between leaders, and that is true also when it comes to the US-Russia relationship” and he is right. It would be a mistake to consider the conversation futile and fruitless.

Some notable signs emerging

Both sides agreed to “further consultations” on the “expert level”. The Biden team declared that “We still do not believe that President Putin has made a decision to further invade Ukraine.” Putin has officially drawn “red lines” in Ukraine case and Biden has officially declared that he will recognize no red lines but now it seems highly likely that the above mentioned “experts” and “further consultations” mean just talking about those “red lines”.

In this context, the consultations can be interpreted to equal negotiations and negotiations, by definition, imply that both parties approach the negotiations as equals and that both parties are willing to engage in a mutually beneficial give and take approach. If not, they are not called negotiations, they are called ultimatums and by all signs, Biden presented Putin with no ultimatums whatsoever.

The Biden Administration’s official position about sanctions from hell and all the rest of the threats, which the US has made will actually be acted upon only, IF Russia invades the Ukraine. In other words, if Russia does not invade, then no more sanctions!?!

Whatever may have said in the meeting, the simple fact that there was such a conversation, matters. The Kremlin has internalized and not without reason that it is only really heard by the Americans, when it makes a fuss and creates a problem. It also seems that Biden and Putin may have reached some kind of minimum personal rapport, which enables further consultations on the expert level.

After the meeting, Jake Sullivan noted that the US and its European allies would engage in a discussion that covers larger strategic issues, including both parties’ strategic concerns, so long as Russia did not escalate militarily in Ukraine.

What next?

Has the video meeting between the Russian and US presidents fostered a new diplomatic understanding between them or are military threat perceptions still very much alive? One conversation alone will not end this crisis. Everything now depends upon what the parties take away from this discussion and what signals they receive and send, in the days and perhaps short weeks ahead.

Western analysts are pondering three possible outcomes: Russia might simply back down in the face of the threat of punitive Western economic sanctions or some kind of renewed diplomatic process could be established that averts conflict or perhaps the military action. The first one is the least likely outcome. The US statement released after the Biden-Putin talks spoke of the two leaders tasking their teams to “follow-up”, suggesting that at the minimum, the dialogue might continue and channels remain open. So, it seems that some kind of diplomatic process may be the outcome.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Wednesday, October 8, President Joe Biden hoped to announce a high-level meeting with Russia and four major NATO allies by the end of the week, to discuss Moscow’s concerns and calm things down on what he called the “eastern front” (Ukraine).

Speaking to Britain’s Sky News, Dmitry Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, that Kiev would be happy to listen to any “reasonable” demands from Russia. “Kiev is willing to talk to Moscow and make concessions to help secure peace, but it will not compromise on anything it considers to be of “fundamental importance,” he said.

AP has reported on Thursday, December 9, citing US administration sources that Biden plans to call President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, two days after his two-hour-long negotiations with Vladimir Putin. The American leader is expected to put pressure on Kiev so that it makes progress on delivering on its obligations under the Minsk Agreements, signed back in 2015. AP states US President Joe Biden will pressure on his Ukrainian counterpart to make progress on Donbass autonomy and indicate that NATO membership is off the table for at least a decade.

After speaking with Zelensky, Biden plans to brief leaders of nine NATO members in Eastern Europe, including three former Soviet republics. It is part of weeks of coordination with NATO allies on the response to the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border. Before and after his call with Putin, Biden spoke with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. France and Germany took the lead in brokering the 2015 peace deal between Ukraine and the Russia-backed rebels, in what’s known as the Normandy format.

It is also significant to notice the frame of reference, the great power context, in any local case like in this Ukraine case. Putin’s recent visit to India, China-Russia strengthening strategic partnership, escalating Indo-Pacific dimension, all depends on all.

The old saying “It remains to be seen” is valid also in this Ukraine case.