Biden's call with Putin produced predictably underwhelming results

Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

As was reported yesterday, President Joe Biden took a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin where the two leaders discussed the situation on Russia’s border with Ukraine, among other matters. Despite the best efforts of the State Department to put some positive spin on the discussion, it doesn’t sound as if things went very well. Both sides wound up sticking to their previous positions and Putin sounded increasingly frustrated and belligerent over what he perceives as NATO’s stubborn refusal to comply with his demands. Biden reportedly didn’t offer any additional sweeteners in an effort to cut a deal and Putin wound up warning that the relationship between Washington and Moscow could undergo a “complete rupture” if NATO pushes any further eastward. While Putin continues to insist that he has “no plans” to invade Ukraine, he’s also not pulling any more troops away from the border. In other words, the stalemate continues. (Associated Press)

President Joe Biden has warned Russia’s Vladimir Putiin that the U.S. could impose new sanctions against Russia if it takes further military action against Ukraine, while Putin responded that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties between the nations.

The two leaders spoke frankly for nearly an hour Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a crisis that has deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its insistence on border security guarantees and test-fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.

Further U.S. sanctions “would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov, who briefed reporters in Moscow after the Biden-Putin phone conversation. He added that Putin told Biden that Russia would act as the U.S. would if offensive weapons were deployed near American borders.

Hearing Putin talk about a “complete rupture” in our relationship may sound alarming, but how much worse could the relationship really get short of open military conflict? Putin himself recently said that the US-Russian relationship was already at the lowest point anyone has seen since the cold war.

But should we really be giving Biden poor marks in terms of foreign diplomacy over this? My thoughts on that question have been shifting in recent months. While it’s true that nobody really wants to see this sort of tension between the world’s superpowers, the fact is that Russia has been acting in an increasingly aggressive fashion on a number of fronts and Putin hasn’t exactly been extending the hand of friendship.

We had a much more cordial relationship with Russia when Donald Trump was in office, but what did that really get us in return? Putin’s human rights record remains abysmal and the hostility of Russia toward its neighbors has been unrelenting. They have also been openly aiding our other adversaries, including Iran and Venezuela while meddling in the affairs of Turkey and its neighbors. It’s long been known that the Russians have been covertly violating international sanctions against Iran and North Korea. In short, playing nice with Russia hasn’t really gained much of anything for the west.

None of this means that we shouldn’t try to avoid warfare on Russia’s borders, of course. As I suggested yesterday, the person Joe Biden really needs to be on the phone with is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (And perhaps he already is behind the scenes.) If we’re to take Putin at his word – a dubious proposition on the best of days – he will pull back and not invade Ukraine if he is assured that NATO won’t offer them membership. Nobody in the west wants to deny Ukraine and the other former Soviet satellite states that option if they desire it, but no one can force Ukraine to join either. One statement from Zelensky saying that he has no plans to apply to join NATO could potentially defuse the entire situation.

We probably have a bit more time to find a solution. Even if Putin plans to invade, most analysts seem to believe that he will wait until March or April to do so. The weather is currently pretty brutal to launch a military campaign, so we may have a few months to work out a non-military solution to this standoff.