As Biden calls Putin, threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine mounts

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Russian troop movement on the Ukrainian border has led to talk of invasion. With forces massing in four locations, in some cases with tanks and artillery, U.S. intelligence believes the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive against its smaller neighbor involving up to 175,000 troops, The Washington Post reported Friday. According to sources, it could start as soon as next year.

This ominous threat of major ground war in Europe hangs over President Biden’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. Although the summit was announced only over the weekend by the Kremlin, officials stressed that these issues have been ongoing for some time. “The Augean stables in our bilateral relations can hardly be cleaned out over several hours of negotiations,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s TV Channel One on Monday.

Forget the allusion to myth — the Russian position on Ukraine is mired in realpolitik. Putin believes that Ukraine falls within its purview and bets that Russia cares less about the United States than it does. Although the United States threatened sanctions against Russia, some Moscowers believe that this is nothing. Russia has been sanctioned up to their core and prepared for even worse. Putin believes that it is a risky gamble but a calculated one.

My colleagues Isabelle Khurshudyan and Paul Sonne report that Putin is expected to issue Biden an ultimatum during their video meeting Tuesday: NATO should never expand into Ukraine. The Western military alliance had repeatedly suggested that Ukraine should have the right to decide its future. Biden, however, has publicly resisted the ultimatum. “I won’t accept anybody’s red line,” the U.S. leader said Friday.

And so Putin’s hand looks dicey indeed.

Would Putin really go to war with Ukraine? The long-standing Russian leader who has been in charge of Russia in any way since more than 20 years, is still as mysterious as the sphinx. After being caught out on the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, many analysts are hesitant to suggest that his actions along the Ukrainian border are just for show.

“Putin doesn’t bluff,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the head of the R.Politik think tank, in a call with journalists. “He has put on the table this option of military operation toward Ukraine, and he is intending to implement it if he fails to obtain what he would like to obtain from the United States.”

However, even if the threat of war is real, it could still be motivated by a desire for negotiations. The United States offered Putin a summit in Geneva last spring when Russia had a smaller but similar buildup at its border with Ukraine. Though that event was carefully managed to avoid giving Russia the upper hand — Putin, frequently late in meetings with other world leaders, was arranged to arrive first at the venue — the fact that it happened at all showed the Kremlin had made Russia a priority for Biden’s foreign policy.

Putin was a “worthy adversary,” Biden admitted to reporters ahead of the meeting. “There has been no hostility,” Putin told reporters after their June conversation. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”

Ukraine, however, is a different beast. It occupies a significant place in Russian history. Along with Belarus, it formed the medieval Kievan Rus, which both Russia and Ukraine believe laid the foundation for their respective states. In a recent article, Putin described Russians and Ukrainians as one people and said “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

But Ukraine has been an independent nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago; despite Putin’s claims of brotherhood, Kyiv’s relations with Moscow soured under his tenure. Protests that erupted in 2013 led to the ouster of a Moscow-leaning president, who fled to Russia. After the annexed Crimea, eight years of grueling war in Ukraine’s eastern region saw the ouster of a Moscow-leaning president.

Ukraine is not likely to join NATO anytime soon, particularly given the endemic corruption in the country and a lack of institutional momentum. However, there is a significant pro-Western sentiment within the country. Demands for greater ties with the European Union were a key driving force behind the 2013 protests and at least a plurality of Ukrainians are now in favor of membership, if not more, depending on the poll.

Though their own actions created the situation, Russian officials fear Ukraine’s deepening military ties to the United States and its allies. Officials in Moscow have complained about Western arms sales to Ukraine, as well as recent flights by U.S. strategic bombers over the Black Sea near Russian borders. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member country, it behaves like one.

“The Kremlin increasingly views Ukraine as a Western aircraft carrier parked just across from Rostov Oblast in southern Russia,” Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last month.

Tuesday’s summit is unlikely to end Putin’s paranoia about Ukraine. The United States is unlikely to agree to any future NATO membership of Ukraine. Future leaders could reverse any promises made, rendering it moot. While there is some frustration in Washington, Washington, and other European capitals with Kyiv’s actions, it is often dwarfed by the anger over Russian belligerence.

There may be small steps that the United States and its allies could make that would lower the temperature. One idea, put forward by experts like Steven Pifer and Angela Stent, is that the United States could step into the Normandy process aimed at mediating a resolution between Russia and Ukraine, which currently includes France and Germany. There could even be a total rethink of the Minsk II agreement that has hung over Russia-Ukraine relations since 2015, never fully administered and still a bone of contention.

Stent, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that Biden needs to think more like Putin on Ukraine and get some of that sphinx-like inscrutability going for the United States. Analysts suggest that the United States may be considering major sanctions against Russia. This could include a possible disconnection from SWIFT (the U.S. bank data system), but some analysts believe it is time to rethink the strategy. “That would be the mother of all sanctions,” Russian scholar Artom Lukin tweeted Monday, before adding, “Iran and North Korea have long been disconnected from SWIFT. Has it changed their behavior?”

The risk of miscalculation is high, however, and even the more hopeful analysts are concerned about the threat of conflict. As Carnegie’s Rumer said, “It’s difficult to reengage with someone who basically is holding a gun to your head.”

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