Putin to Biden: No summit unless outcome is already guaranteed; UPDATE: Breaks Minsk agreement, recognizes separatist independence

Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP

What do the prospects for avoiding war in Ukraine look like at the moment? This is how it started this morning:

President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have “accepted the principle” of a summit meeting to be held some time after Thursday, the French presidency said in a statement on Monday.

The meeting, “to be held on the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine,” would address “security and strategic stability in Europe.” The groundwork for a summit would be prepared in a planned meeting on Thursday between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, the statement said. Mr. Lavrov confirmed his willingness to attend that meeting.

The French statement offered hope that Mr. Putin has decided against an invasion, at least for now. However, U.S. officials are far from certain that Thursday’s meeting between the nations’ top diplomats will happen.

Two hours or so later, this is how it’s going:

Traditionally, of course, summits between superpowers operated on precisely this basis. Normally, the summit took place to simply finalize a deal worked out by the diplomatic corps ahead of time. The 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was a rare exception, when Reagan balked at Gorbachev’s proposal to end the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as well as insisting on making human rights a part of the bargaining. Otherwise, it was generally accepted that summits producing agreements served both nation’s interests and rarely did those summits turn contentious. (One has to wonder whether Reykjavik is on Putin’s mind with this new demand, in fact.)

Putin’s not the only one questioning the wisdom of pushing a summit without a clear roadmap. CNN’s Stephen Collinson offered reasonable skepticism that such a meeting would take place at all, but also noted that it could very easily backfire on Joe Biden:

Hawkish Republicans are sure to accuse him of appeasing the Russian strongman and of rewarding his aggression in holding Ukraine hostage. If a meeting with Putin fails and an invasion follows regardless, Biden will open himself up to charges of weakness.

Any summit that is not comprehensively choreographed for success beforehand is a political high-wire act. And Biden can ill-afford blows to his prestige, with his approval rankings sliding and after his claims to statesmanship were dented by the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. …

One theory of the Russian leader’s build-up around Ukraine is that he wants to restore the Kremlin’s Cold War prestige as an equal power of the US. In essence, Biden is granting Putin that platform, even though many in Washington regard Russia as a greatly diminished force, despite its formidable nuclear arsenal.

The same accusation — that a US President was granting the concession of equal prestige — surrounded ex-President Donald Trump’s inconclusive summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. There is little chance of the affection on display at those love-ins being repeated in frosty Biden/Putin talks.

But Putin would also clearly like to debate and decide the great affairs of nations with the US — as was the case during Cold War summits between the US and the Soviet Union. The fact that this potential encounter was arranged by the French will ease some fears in Europe that US allies are being marginalized — a factor that did rear its head early in the Ukraine crisis.

As an added risk, Putin appears to be deliberately escalating the crisis even while the summit arrangement remains murky. He held a summit of his own in Moscow today to decide whether to recognize the ethnic-Russian areas of the Donbas as independent of Ukraine, following the same playbook Putin used in Georgia:

Russian President Vladimir Putin convened top officials Monday to consider recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a move that would ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears that the Kremlin could launch an invasion of Ukraine imminently.

The publicly staged, pre-recorded meeting of the presidential Security Council came amid a spike in skirmishes in eastern Ukraine that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the western-looking democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit. …

Leaders of the regions released televised statements earlier pleading with Putin to recognize them as independent states and sign friendship treaties envisaging military aid to protect them from what they described as an ongoing Ukrainian military offensive. Russia’s lower house of parliament made the same plea last week.

Ukrainian authorities deny launching an offensive and accuse Russia of provocation.

That would violate the 2015 Minsk agreement, unilaterally, which would all but burn Putin’s remaining diplomatic bridges. It would leave him with only two stark choices — invasion or retreat, both of which would be costly in their own way. Putin may be using this threat to get the West to make the concessions he’s demanding ahead of any “summit” with Biden as a way to head off a full-scale war in Ukraine. He might use this to demand that the West respect the independence of those regions in exchange for a stand-down order — along with an ironclad guarantee that the West will renege on its Bucharest declaration to admit Ukraine into NATO and to pull anti-missile systems out of Poland. That “respect” will include parking regular Russian military units in Donbas permanently rather than just the proxy militias holding the territories now.

At this point, we can assess where we stand by what happens next. If Biden meets with Putin at a summit, it will be because Putin got at least a large portion of what he wanted. And if Russia invades Ukraine, we’ll know that’s what Putin wanted all along … for whatever benefit Putin sees in a long, grinding occupation guaranteed to kill plenty of Russian troops over the next few months, at least. I’d bet on the summit, though, because Putin will undoubtedly think he can easily outbox Biden in negotiations — or at the very least humiliate him, and by extension the US and the West.

Update: Will Putin stop with this violation of the Minsk agreement?

Putin himself made it clear earlier that he wasn’t going for annexation, unlike Crimea:

If Putin doesn’t get other concessions, he can claim victory with this decision, especially if the separatists “request” Russian military assistance to hold those lines. Putin will then directly occupy the Donbas rather than through proxies in a maneuver similar to what Putin did with Georgia. That might be a big enough win to skip a very costly invasion, especially if the West accepts it as a fait accompli with a minimum of sanctions.

Let’s just hope Putin stops at the Sudetenland — er, the Donbas.