Pundits across the Atlantic have been closely watching the buildup of tensions around Ukraine by Russia in the run-up to the virtual summit of U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Now that the talks have taken place and the two administrations rolled out their interpretations of their actual content, Timothy Ash, a UK-based analyst and economist with BlueBay Assets Management, offers Ukrinform his reflections on the outcome of the negotiations that many believe might have a direct impact on further developments in and around Ukraine.
First things first, it’s good Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are talking. As the Biden team pointed out, this was a chance for the two sides to better understand each other.
Second, Biden seems to have been very tough, highlighting the substantial sanctions which would be rolled out should Russia launch “another” offensive against Ukraine. It was also Biden’s chance to tell Putin “we know what you are doing, we have the intel.” “Don’t do it or else.” Notable I think also that later in the press conference National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted that if Putin goes in (again), the U.S. will continue to arm Ukraine to defend itself. To increase the cost to Russia – no doubt the U.S. warning that it would ensure Ukraine became a second Afghanistan for Moscow.
Important I think also that Biden seemed to give Putin none of his asks – so no commitment to no further NATO expansion, no Finlandization of Ukraine – non-aligned status – and no commitment not to re-arm Ukraine. There was a willingness from the Biden team to help move the Minsk and Normandy peace talks forward – but in recent weeks Moscow has let it be known that these talks are really dead.
Putin no longer sees Donbas as his Trojan horse in Ukraine – he has realized that the Ukrainians have figured out how to get on with moving Westwards despite the ongoing conflict in Donbas. They have proven mega resilient and innovative.
Third, on this latter point, Putin got very little from this summit, aside from a Zoom call. And what we have learned in recent weeks is that for Putin it’s no longer about just NATO or EU membership for Ukraine. He does not like the fact that the West is helping Ukraine build its own significant military capability – imagine going from only 6,000 combat-ready and trained troops in 2014 to perhaps half a million now. Moscow has spoken about Ukraine as a NATO allied aircraft carrier on its borders. Nothing from this Zoom call seems to have changed that.
Indeed, from Sullivan’s comments and those of other NATO partners, the West will likely step up its efforts to arm Ukraine to defend itself. If Putin saw Ukraine as a military threat a month ago, it is an even bigger one now – albeit I don’t buy the Russian view there as Ukraine is building defensive not offensive capability and it’s ridiculous to see Ukraine as offering any potential to attack Russia itself.
So the question here is Putin has marched 175,000 troops up the hill for what exactly? To get a kicking from Biden in a Zoom call, to unify the West as we have not seen it in recent years to agree to more harsh sanctions if Putin goes in again in Ukraine, and likely now accelerated re-armament of Ukraine?
I don’t see that Putin has achieved much here – if anything, his bluff has been called and in that snapshot of the call with Biden he looked small and isolated, while Biden was with his buddies Antony Blinken, Victoria Nuland, and Jake Sullivan.
All this worries me. As did the 2.5-hour wait for the Kremlin readout of the call – unheard of for the Kremlin not to be spinning the event in the media right after the call. What were they doing in those 2.5 hours? Arguing over the Oxford comma in the press release?
Fourth, well I guess Putin might take solace on Nord Stream 2. The West made it known that NS2 would be pulled if Putin invades. So does that mean if he does not it is fine to go ahead? Is that the carrot? It’s ironic also that if Putin invades Ukraine, he will not need NS2 as he will be able to use the Ukrainian GTS. So this is hardly an aggressive sanction.
But notable I also thought that NS2 and other sanctions were pulled from the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act. Looks like coordination there between Congress and the White House. But it does all look like bullying pays off unless the White House now looks to roll all these out anyway via an Executive Order.
Fifth, just on the Normandy Four and Minsk 2 peace processes. As Putin seems to have concluded, both are dead. Minsk 2 is unimplementable. Ukraine will never give the kind of autonomy to the two regions of Luhansk and Donetsk which would give them what Putin wants – veto power over Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation.
U.S. involvement in talks will not change that as no Ukrainian president can deliver that without risking major political upheaval in Ukraine. Surely Putin also knows that. And again, for Putin it’s no longer just about no NATO or EU for Ukraine but its general orientation, which is firmly West, and its rearmament, which will not stop irrespective of the outcome of peace talks over Donbas.
Sixth, and finally where does this all leave us?
I don’t think much has really changed. Putin marched his troops up to his border with Ukraine, and also the Belarus border with Ukraine – so he opened up two fronts now. The troops are still there, and Putin can strike at any time this winter.
Putin asked for red lines to be honored – he actually moved them out. But Biden pretty much rode through these and said, hey Vlad, remember the U.S. superpower that once was, well, we are still here with our European allies, what are you going to do? Biden pushed the red lines back and further East.
So the question is what is Putin going to do now? Has Putin’s risk assessment changed? Will he be un-nerved by the newly-found Western unity on sanctions which really was not there before he amassed his troops near the border? Or will he just still conclude that this is his time/opportunity in history and he will never get a better chance to bring Ukraine back under the Russian sphere of influence – by force – and just press ahead?
The weeks and months ahead will likely reveal his real intentions. But if Putin does not go in this winter, likely his bluff will have been called and his threats will be seen to be hollow.
Can Putin live with that?
This text represents the author’s personal views and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of Bluebay Asset Management.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ukrinform.
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