Biden seeks western unity before Ukraine negotiations with Putin

Joe Biden will seek to cement unity with European powers on the eve of a phone call with Vladimir Putin designed to outline punitive measures that would inflict “severe” harm to Russia’s economy in case of an invasion of Ukraine.

The US president will host consultations with allies on Monday “to make sure he goes into that conversation with allied unity and strong transatlantic solidarity”, a senior Biden administration official said. Secretary of state Antony Blinken will also speak to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of the conversation with Putin.

“There will be very real costs” should Russia choose to pursue escalation, said the official, adding, however, that the US was not seeking “to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force”.

The US administration has accused Russia of making preparations for a military incursion in Ukraine — deepening a conflict that began with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — by amassing up to 175,000 troops at its border.

The spectre of fresh hostilities in the country’s eastern Donbas region, where a conflict with Russian-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people, has raised the stakes for Biden’s attempts to contain Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.

“This may well be the last opportunity to move toward de-escalation,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at Rand. “The stakes couldn’t be higher. Either it leads to a renewed diplomacy, or war becomes much more likely.”

Biden met Putin for the first time as president in June in the hope of putting “guardrails” preventing the US-Russia relationship — already at its lowest ebb since the Cold War — from deteriorating further.

The administration was expecting them to meet again next year after making what officials in both countries describe as tentative progress on cyber security, arms control, and restoring staff at diplomatic missions after mutual expulsions.

The US hoped Biden could succeed where several Franco-German attempts at rapprochements with Moscow since the Crimea annexation had failed.

In recent weeks, however, Putin has made it clear he wants legally binding security guarantees that Nato will not expand to Ukraine or deploy weapons there — and warned the west will face consequences if it crosses Moscow’s “red lines.”

Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia’s demand for high-stakes negotiations with Biden — who says he once told Putin he did not believe the Russian president had a soul — was in itself a sign the Kremlin saw him as a credible negotiating partner.

“It’s a compliment, in a way,” Liik said. “They didn’t think that [French president Emmanuel] Macron or France or Europe can deliver on those matters at all. And in the US, Trump was incapable of concluding any agreement or delivering on it. So paradoxically, Biden is now someone who can speak on behalf of the west, so it makes sense to discuss these matters with him.”

An unclassified US intelligence document obtained by Reuters shows Russian military activity on the territory of Russia and Russian-annexed Crimea close to the border with Ukraine © Reuters

Biden’s team is hoping to dissuade Putin from taking the step by trailing warnings of heavy penalties if he chooses to do so, working with allies on an unprecedented package of financial sanctions and developing military options to help Ukraine defend itself with additional weapons.

“The call provides President Biden with an opportunity to convey the scale and credibility of a US and allied response to any Russian escalation. Nothing will be resolved in the call, but it’s a critical opportunity to shape the Kremlin’s calculus,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who Biden appointed his Russia director at the National Security Council before she resigned for personal reasons.

The troop build-up is also aimed at dissuading hawkish elements of the Ukrainian government and armed forces from attempting to quash separatists in the Donbas by force, according to a former senior Russian official.

“Nobody wants to fight, but they want to say, ‘Don’t even think about it, or we will completely flatten you,” the person added. “It’s about containment.”

Moscow has blamed the west for the tensions by funding the modernisation of the Ukrainian army — most recently with Turkey’s state of the art Bayraktar drones — and accused Nato of provoking it by adding new members closer to Russia’s borders.

A satellite image shows a Russian troop location at the Pogonovo training ground in Voronezh region
A satellite image shows a Russian troop location at the Pogonovo training ground in Voronezh region © Maxar Technologies/AP

Russia wants a prospective deal over Ukraine to be legally binding after claiming the west went back on assurances it gave to the USSR in its final years that Nato would not expand beyond the former East Germany.

“Putin is rational. He understands that relations with the US have been ruined for the next 100 or 200 years. But there are things we have to discuss. We need to stop provoking each other and be reasonable,” says the former official. “Let them look each other in the eyes for a change.”

The Kremlin may have already decided, however, that it can weather whatever sanctions the US can throw at it, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The most severe measure possible — an exclusion from the SWIFT banking system — would make it difficult for Europe to buy the oil and gas exports that provide much of the continent’s energy. Earlier sanctions blacklisting most of Putin’s entourage had had the unwanted effect of rallying cronies and oligarchs around the president, Gabuev said.

These oligarchs “are already under sanctions forever, so the west has no way to work with them”, Gabuev said. “That makes the troops on the Ukrainian border like Chekhov’s gun — if it’s hanging on the wall, then it’s going to go off.”

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