Biden to take another shot at talking to Putin about Ukraine

Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Today will be the second call between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in less than a month. The White House seems to be trying to play this off as your typical foreign diplomacy exercise, saying that the leaders will be discussing “a range of topics” including potential “diplomatic engagements” between the United States and Russia. But this time it was Putin who requested the call and it’s fairly obvious that he mostly has one thing on his mind. The situation along the Ukrainian border hasn’t cooled down noticeably since their last call and Moscow is still awaiting an answer as to whether America and NATO will bow to his demands of promises that NATO will not invite Ukraine to join the alliance or push any further eastward beyond its current membership. Thus far, the answer to that demand has been a firm “no” across the board from the involved parties, with the west insisting that each country must be left to make its own decisions about their alliances. Can Uncle Joe work some magic and convince Putin to return his troops to their normal training areas? (Politico)

President Joe Biden will speak on Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid ongoing tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border, the White House announced on Wednesday.

The two leaders will “discuss a range of topics” during their phone call, “including upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement.

But the main point of conversation is certain to be Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, which has prompted concern among the U.S. and its NATO countries for several months.

It’s not as if Putin doesn’t appear ready to make some sort of deal. Earlier this week, he withdrew roughly 10,000 troops from the border, returning them to their permanent deployment stations further to the north and west. This was seen as a gesture of good will in advance of his call with the White House. But that still leaves more than 90,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and the ten thousand that departed could readily turn around and march right back into position if Putin gives the order.

For his part, Biden seems to be trying to keep the temperature low, talking about the need for productive diplomacy. Oddly enough, his Secretary of State doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. Antony Blinken has been sending rather stern messages out on social media, issuing warnings to Russia about Moscow’s “aggression.” He also reiterated America’s “support” for the current Ukrainian government, weaving in remarks about our “NATO allies and partners.”

And this breaking news item right before the phone call probably won’t be helping matters any either, unless it was done as a rather unsubtle message to the Kremlin.

It’s good to see at least a small olive branch coming from Putin this week. As you may recall, it wasn’t that long ago when he was talking about the possibility of hypersonic missiles heading for the capitals of various NATO member nations if any NATO troops were staged inside of Ukraine. That might have simply been some bluster to get his point across, but you really can’t put something like that past him entirely. And if you think he wouldn’t have the audacity to go ahead and invade Ukraine, tell that to the people of the Crimean Peninsula.

I’ve been pondering this dilemma ever since the situation began heating up and it occurs to me that there probably is one graceful avenue out of this mess that wouldn’t cause any of the participants to lose too much face. Imagine what would happen if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were to come out and announce that his country has no plans to join NATO even if they were invited while affirming his country’s position as a “partner” to NATO nations in economic and diplomatic matters. That would allow Putin to stand down, having received the (relatively meaningless) assurances he’s been looking for. But as an unofficial “partner,” there would be nothing stopping the NATO members from continuing to engage in trade and even threaten military support for Ukraine in the event that Russia eventually invades. Either way, if the situation does still totally collapse, it would be viewed as entirely Putin’s fault for instigating the issue. It’s not a perfect solution, but I think it would be better than nothing.