Joe Biden is preparing for a virtual summit with Vladimir Putin aimed at warding off the threat of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The summit is previewed by the Kremlin. The White House has not confirmed this, but a spokeswoman, Zhen Psaki, said “high-level diplomacy is a priority for the president” and pointed to a teleconference meeting with Xi Jinping in November.
The stakes could hardly be higher. China continues to threaten Taiwan, while Russia is building military around Ukraine. In both cases, America could be drawn into conflict with potentially disastrous consequences.
The head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency, Brigadier General Kirillo Budanov, told the Military Times on Saturday that Russia has more than 92,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and is preparing to strike in January or February. Others say the threat is not so imminent and that Russia has much to lose by invading Ukraine, but few if any experts would rule out an invasion outright.
In facing Putin on Ukraine, every policy option available to Biden is fraught with risk.
In a statement Wednesday commemorating the Holodomor famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s, Biden reinstated “our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Such statements of support are meant as a deterrent, but each time they are repeated they amplify the dilemma Biden will face if Putin is bluffed.
“Clearly, I am concerned that if we, the United States, continue to iron out commitments to Ukraine, and find ourselves in a position where we are obliged to defend it, Or not to defend it and appear downright vulnerable, said Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, “we will put ourselves in a very difficult position.”
CNN reports that there is an urgent policy debate in the administration over whether to increase the delivery of weapons, such as the Javelin anti-tank missile and the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Some in the administration say such weapons would add to the cost of any Russian military incursion and affect Putin’s calculations. Others argue that this would represent an alarming escalation, and increase fears of a US or NATO attack, based on Russia’s aggressive military stance.
Fiona Hill, a former senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, said: “You are damned if you do this and damned if you don’t.”
Hill helped prepare for Donald Trump’s summit with Putin and advised the Biden team ahead of his first meeting as president with the Russian leader in June. She said the new talks were urgent and necessary, but contained traps that Biden would have to avoid.
“The problem right now is that Russia is framing the Ukraine issue as a very drastic option: the United States surrenders at Ukrainian sovereignty – not only Ukraine but at the head of Europe – or risks an outright war, Hill said. He said the Kremlin had long wanted the two superpowers to sit and decide on spheres of influence in the Cold War paradigm.
One of the solutions being worked out is for Ukraine to quell Russian fears by rejecting future NATO membership as well as placing limits on its military capabilities, but Hill says it is a nonsense of Ukraine’s sovereignty. will set a harmful precedent.
“We can have a virtual summit. We can sit down with the United States and Russia, but Ukraine cannot be at the bargaining table. We can talk about strategic stability but we are not in a position to bargain with Ukraine. Europeans have to take this seriously.”
Menon, co-author of the 2015 book, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, suggested that the impending threat was being exaggerated. He said that before the current crisis there were 87,000 Russian troops in the area bordering Ukraine, and that area was defined broadly. He said some of the troops were currently more than 430 miles (700 km) away from the actual border.
“Even if one assumed that Russia could throw 100,000 troops into battle, it would not have the numerical advantage to overwhelm a Ukrainian army (usually calculated at 3:1 ), which, for all its faults, is now better trained and equipped and has better morale than in 2014,” he said.
“Furthermore, the further west Russia pushes, the more it will stretch its supply lines, risk hit-and-run attacks that will try to disrupt them, and encounter areas with large proportions of (unfriendly) ethnic Ukrainians.” These problems, and the fact that Putin would burn all bridges with the West by invading Ukraine, have either been overlooked or are here briefly summarized in the prevailing narrative.
Menon said this meant Putin would eventually not launch an offensive if the Russian red lines were crossed.
“We shouldn’t think, the shock comes when they say we won’t allow Ukraine to join NATO … that they are just bluffing. I don’t think they are bluffing.”