Joe Biden is preparing for a virtual summit with Vladimir Putin in an effort to fend off the threat of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The summit was previewed by the Kremlin. The White House has not confirmed it, but spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “high-level diplomacy is a priority for the president” and referred to the teleconference meeting with Xi Jinping earlier in November.
The stakes could hardly be higher. China threatened Taiwan, while Russia led a military build-up around Ukraine. Either way, the United States could be drawn into conflict, with potentially catastrophic results.
The head of the Ukrainian defense intelligence agency, Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, told the Military Times on Saturday that Russia has more than 92,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and is preparing for an attack in January or February. Others say the threat is not so imminent and that Russia has a lot to lose by invading Ukraine, but few, if any, experts would rule out an invasion entirely.
In confronting Putin with Ukraine, every political option available to Biden is fraught with risk.
In a statement Wednesday commemorating the Holodomor famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s, Biden reaffirmed “our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Such statements of support are meant to have a chilling effect, but each time they are repeated, they compound the dilemma Biden will face if Putin calls his bluff.
“What worries me, frankly, is that if we, the United States, continue to make rock-solid commitments to Ukraine and find ourselves in a position where we are forced to defend it, or not to defend it and to appear completely weak, we are going to put ourselves in a very difficult position, ”said Rajan Menon, professor of political science at the City University of New York.
CNN reported that there was an urgent political debate within the administration over whether to step up deliveries of weapons, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Some in the administration claim that such weapons would increase the costs of any Russian military incursion and thus influence Putin’s calculations. Others argue that this would represent a dangerous escalation and increase fear of an attack by the United States or NATO, which is the basis of Russia’s aggressive military position.
“You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council.
Hill helped prepare for Donald Trump’s summits with Putin and advised the Biden team ahead of their first meeting as president with the Russian leader in June. She said new talks were urgent and essential, but contained pitfalls Biden should avoid.
“The problem right now is how Russia presents the Ukrainian question as a very difficult choice: the United States is surrendering to Ukrainian sovereignty – on the head not only of Ukraine but also of Europe – or risks all-out war, ”Hill said. noted. She added that the Kremlin has long wanted to return to the Cold War paradigm of two superpowers sitting down and deciding spheres of influence.
One of the solutions offered is to allay Russia’s fears by ruling out Ukraine’s future NATO membership, as well as limiting its military capabilities, but Hill says that would harm Russia’s sovereignty. Ukraine, setting a damaging precedent.
“We can have a virtual summit. We can talk to the United States and Russia, but Ukraine cannot be at the negotiating table. We can talk about strategic stability, but we are not in a position to negotiate with Ukraine, ”Hill said. “And it can’t just be the United States. Europeans must take this seriously.
Menon, co-author of a 2015 book Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, suggested the looming threat was overblown. He said that there were 87,000 Russian troops in the region contiguous to Ukraine long before the current crisis, and that this region was broadly defined. Some of the troops were currently more than 430 miles 700 km from the actual border, he said.
“Even assuming that Russia could send 100,000 troops into combat, it would not have the numerical advantage (usually calculated at 3: 1) of overwhelming a Ukrainian army which, for all its flaws, is now better off. trained and equipped and has better morale than in 2014, ”he said.
“In addition, the further west Russia pushes, the more it will expand its supply lines, risk lightning attacks that seek to disrupt them, and encounter areas with a higher proportion of ethnic (unfriendly) Ukrainians. These issues, and the fact that Putin would break all bridges with the West by invading Ukraine, are either ignored or overlooked in the mainstream narratives here.
That doesn’t mean Putin wouldn’t ultimately launch an invasion if the Russian red lines were crossed, Menon said.
“We shouldn’t think that when they say we won’t allow Ukraine to join NATO, they’re bluffing. I don’t think they’re bluffing at all.