"Hold me Back!!!!!" The Second Biden-Putin Skype Summit

Friday, December 31, 2021

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin had their second "Skype Summit" of the month yesterday. I found this rather interesting. The two had, after all, just conferred on Dec. 7 and are representatives of the two administrations (but not Biden and Putin themselves) due to meet in Geneva on January 10. 

So, why the second Skype meeting? 

By all accounts I've read, it was Moscow that requested the second meeting. This came on the heels of a set of demands issued by Moscow two weeks after Putin's last Skype session with Biden. 

These proposals included the following

  • That NATO "exclude further expansion to Ukraine and other states."
  • NATO withdraw military infrastructure placed in Eastern European states after 1997.
  • The withdrawal of multinational NATO battalions from Poland and from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Basically, Moscow is threatening to invade Ukraine unless the United States agrees to roll back the clock to 1997.  

In the aftermath of the first Biden-Putin Skype Summit (my term for it, anyway), the Biden administration called for more sanctions against Russia, should Moscow invade Ukraine. The sanctions that the US and EU imposed against Russia following Moscow's annexation of the Crimea are still in place, and have had a moderate impact upon the Russian economy and access to technology. 

However, given Russia's control over Europe's natural gas imports, as well as Moscow's diplomatic cultivation of authoritarian governments in Central Europe--particularly that of Viktor Orban in Hungary--it is unclear how much more stomach EU members would have for mounting still more sanctions against Russia. The Crimea-related sanctions were just extended in the EU about a week ago for another six months. But adopting and extending sanctions requires a unanimous vote, an achievement that is increasingly hard to come by, at least with respect to anything controversial, in the 27-member body. 

Ultimately, Putin appears to be banking on the idea that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be such a calamity, in the eyes of the West, that Washington and the EU will agree to just about anything in order to restrain Russia from making the move. 

Without question, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would constitute a humanitarian calamity for people in Ukraine--don't get me wrong. But I don't really see how such an invasion would really serve Moscow's interests. As I've discussed in recent posts, a full-fledged invasion of all of Ukraine could be potentially disastrous for Russia. Simply invading the largely Russophone eastern regions of Ukraine would certainly be easier, but how would this benefit Russia, particularly if move invited crippling sanctions from the US and other countries? 

Any Russian move in Ukraine, meanwhile, would certainly be met by a doubling-down of US and other NATO forces in the Baltic countries and Poland, at least for as long as the present administration is in power in Washington. And frankly, while eastern Ukraine is valuable to Putin as a pressure point that he can apply upon Kyiv (by supporting separatists there), I don't see what the benefit would be to Russia of actually occupying that region. Putin's better off with the status quo. 

There's a whiff of desperation to Putin's actions that I find worrisome. The main point of the second call with Biden appears to have been to register Putin's anger at being threatened with still more sanctions. "Hold me back!!! Hold be Back!!!," Putin seems to be saying, Fred Sanford-style. Because of course, it makes perfect sense for the US and NATO to retreat from eastern and central Europe in order to prevent Moscow from launching a potentially catastrophic (for Russia) invasion of its neighbor. 

Could someone as smart as Putin really think that getting involved in a ground war in Ukraine would be a good idea? Of course not. Under normal circumstances,I would call what Putin is doing a bluff. Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, after all, began as a means of distracting the world from what Moscow had just done--annexing the Crimea, a region that Russia actually did have tangible interests. 

But it's a threat that has the power to take on a life of its own--and that's the scary part. Putin has been in power for more than twenty years now. He probably thinks he can do just about anything at this point. Whereas the Russian president has traditionally been wary of instability, he's now becoming its cause. 

Speaking of instability, what I don't understand is why Putin didn't try to pull this during the previous administration. There's no way that Biden, or any traditional Democrat or Republican in the US, would agree to Putin's most recent threats. But I can think of one recent president who likely would have been more amenable to "making a deal" with the Russian president. Why did Putin wait until DJT was out of office in order to try something like this? I don't know, but maybe he has his eye on US elections to come. Or maybe some people in the Kremlin have become so addicted to tough-guy rhetoric surrounding Ukraine that they can't help themselves. As the US learned with Iraq, sometimes this stuff can take on a logic, and a momentum, of its own, no matter how stupid the reasons. 

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, there's a good chance that it could end up looking a lot more like the US in Iraq than the USSR in Czechoslovakia. Long the master of competence, Putin is starting to look like the originator of harebrained schemes. But what would Mr. Tough Guy do if, after all of his huffing and puffing about NATO and Ukraine, the US government and NATO didn't cave? 

It's a bluff that could become real, and that's why we should be concerned. 

At the same time, however, if the US were to cave into Moscow's demands and move NATO back westward, then we could all look forward to re-living this experience in a few years' time in the Baltics. 


Also see: 

What Would Happen if Russia Invaded Ukraine?

Crimea River: Water and Russian-Ukrainian Relations

Rattling Kyiv's Cage

The Not-So-Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition 

Crimea and eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse


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