In the wake of the December 7 talks between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian and Russian experts interviewed by Current Time see more potential problems than promises of a breakthrough in the dispute with Moscow over NATO’s ties with Ukraine, Russia’s largest eastern neighbor.
Although these observers support discussions between the U.S. and Russia, they do not expect an immediate end to the tensions that have sparked international fears of war.
They addressed four areas of concern:
A Mutual Misunderstanding
In November 2021, both U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken conceded that they did not understand what Russia intended to achieve by accumulating troops and military hardware within striking distance of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Volodymyr Dubovik, director of Odesa National University’s Center for International Research in the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Odesa, sees no sign that befuddlement has ended.
“It’s felt on all these issues in Washington that there’s no clear understanding of what’s going on and how to deal with this, how it’s possible to influence this,” Dubovik commented. “There also could be a certain lack of self-confidence from this.”
President Biden reportedly warned President Putin that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would lead to increased U.S. military presence in eastern NATO members, "defensive" support for Ukraine, and a series of economic penalties "like none he's ever seen or ever have been seen ...."
At root, though, Biden and Putin approach negotiations differently, noted Pavlo Klimkin, who, as Ukraine’s foreign minister between 2014 and 2019, headed talks with the U.S. and Russia, including on the conflict with pro-Moscow separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
“Putin’s head is built in such a way that he understands the game precisely as zero-sum,” with each participant giving something or making concessions to the other side, Klimkin continued.
But “Western logic” looks for a “win-win,” or “plusses for each side,” he said. “Of course, this is alien to Putin.”
U.S. President Biden, though, asserted on December 8 that "I am absolutely confident he got the message" about the consequences for an invasion of Ukraine.
Nonetheless, a difference in interpretation could be seen on December 8, when President Biden expressed “hope” that, by December 10, meetings would be held with Russia and “at least four of our major NATO allies and Russia to discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large and whether or not we can work out any accommodations …”
Russia’s state-run news agency TASS interpreted that as meaning that the United States and NATO intend to consider a possible security guarantee for Russia, as previously demanded by President Putin.
Moscow sees a NATO pledge not to expand “eastwards” and not to deploy “weapons systems threatening Russia” in its vicinity as components of any such guarantee.
But expecting NATO to issue a security guarantee to a country that is not part of the alliance is unrealistic, Aleksandra Filippenko, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, commented on December 8.
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that Biden had provided no such guarantee during his December 7 video call with Putin.
Any such concession would have a limited effect, believes Dubovik.
Putin “still will not leave Ukraine alone and will draw more and more red lines and there’ll be one new escalation after another,” he said.
Following the Biden call, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko on December 8 addressed Georgia, another aspiring NATO member, with the same remarks Moscow directs at Ukraine.
The South Caucasus country’s pro-NATO position “complicates security in the region and does not bring the trust that is now needed to normalize important relations and stabilize the situation in this very important region,” Rudenko said at negotiations in Geneva.
Though such criticism is familiar, Tbilisi denounced the statement as “a threat.”
Russian political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a Putin critic, dismissed Moscow’s expectations that NATO will agree not to expand further eastward as “utopian” and propaganda.
“NATO has already expanded. And all these screams that NATO will be close to Russia -- please, NATO already is in Estonia,” Krasheninnikov underlined. “This is 100 kilometers (62 miles) from St. Petersburg. And it’s no big deal.”
Ultimately, for Ukraine, “NATO is a security guarantee,” stressed Klimkin. “Without this, no one here will feel safe.”
Russian Troops Will Remain Along Ukraine’s Border
In the U.S. and the European Union, the estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Russian troops now stationed along Ukraine’s eastern border or in Russian-annexed Crimea are seen as a harbinger of potential war. But among interviewed analysts, they are all about Putin securing direct talks with President Biden.
“Basically, all these poor soldiers were freezing in the field only so that Biden would call Putin, so that they’d talk,” and “reach a conclusion” about Ukraine’s relations with NATO, asserted Krasheninnikov. But Biden and Putin “didn’t come to any conclusions whatsoever.”
That, however, does not mean the troops will now leave, predicted Klimkin.
“I don’t think they will pull out because Putin needs troops for further dialogue with the United States,” he commented. The Russian leader, Klimkin said, “needs a constant pressure lever, and he will hang on to it.”
If Russia had wanted a war, then, “the war would have started absolutely all of a sudden, as happens in most cases,” agreed Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Fesenko. “But, for now, it’s a means of pressure on Biden.”
Moscow has denied repeatedly that it intends to invade Ukraine, and stresses that it is free to deploy troops as it likes on its own territory.
The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Filippenko concurs with Fesenko, however, that the troop buildup occurred “only for the sake of the telephone conversation." Yet she sees a chance for tensions to decrease since the Kremlin has “achieved what it wanted.”
“It exclusively wanted negotiations, it exclusively wanted one-on-one meetings,” she said.
In the “negotiations war,” she added, Moscow now has “quite an advantageous position.”
Sanctions Only Work So Far
Rather than President Biden’s mention of an expanded U.S. presence in eastern NATO members or defensive help to Ukraine in case of a Russian invasion, the analysts focused first on the U.S. threat to shut Russia off from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system for international financial transactions if Ukraine is invaded.
It is termed “the nuclear option,” but Krasheninnikov cautioned against overemphasizing the impact of such a move.
“Nothing radically scary will happen for Russia from shutting off SWIFT, actually,” he said. “They’ve already been preparing for this for a long time. “
Since threats about SWIFT began in 2014, Russia has created financial transfer systems that already function, the think tank Carnegie Moscow noted in a May 2021 report by University of Zurich fellow Maria Shagina. International transfers with these systems, however, could prove more cumbersome due to their limited usage outside of Russia.
Ultimately, U.S. and German banks could suffer the most since they most frequently use SWIFT for transfers with Russia, Shagina noted.
Filippenko sees a loss of Russian access to SWIFT as possible “in the case of a hot war,” but believes Russia is unlikely to take a step now that could expose it to this option.
Sending troops across the border into Ukraine would contradict Moscow’s long-time assertion that it does not arm or support the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, she stressed.
Beyond SWIFT, the Biden White House has indicated that sanctions targeting Russia’s financial and energy sector – in particular, its gas sales to Europe via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – could be imposed in conjunction with European allies.
But, based on the low impact of the sanctions for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Krasheninnikov sees no particular threat here.
“These will be tough sanctions, but not fatal. For this reason, it’s better that no war starts because, by themselves, these sanctions will save no one from anything.”
An Agreement On Ukraine Without Ukraine?
Despite their criticism of the talks, the interviewed analysts see direct communication between Moscow and the White House as the only solution to the Ukrainian border standoff.
The Ukrainian government appears to agree.
"The most important thing that we see now is that there is a personal real reaction and personal role of President Biden in resolving this conflict, the war in the east of our state,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy commented on December 8, Reuters reported.
The two leaders are expected to talk by phone on December 9 ahead of a meeting of the Bucharest Nine, a group of nine Eastern European members of NATO.
The fact that Zelenskiy, whom Putin declined to meet earlier this year, did not attend the virtual Biden-Putin meeting has led some observers to jibe that the Biden-Putin call was a summit about Ukraine without Ukraine.
But Klimkin sees no reason for Ukraine to feel slighted.
“Whether the discussion will be today or tomorrow, is not, in reality, critical,” he stated on December 7. “What’s critical is that there be an honest, trusting conversation about what Biden’s concept is, what Putin said, and this is really the most important, to agree on a joint strategy because Putin, as you see, deliberately is increasing the stakes.”
Ultimately, Ukraine cannot be overlooked by either side, stressed Ukrainian political scientist Fesenko.
“Without Ukraine, it’s impossible to find a solution for our problems. And when it’s necessary to make a decision, then it has to be taken with Ukraine.”