The slow-burning military standoff along the Russia-Ukraine border could reach a tipping point next week as the Biden administration enters a series of high-stakes diplomatic meetings with Moscow, and analysts say the U.S. and its NATO allies must seize a golden opportunity to turn the tables and extract concessions from the Kremlin.
A mostly united front from the U.S. and its European allies and threats of crushing economic sanctions so far have kept Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching a full-scale ground invasion of Ukraine.
Deadly protests and an unfolding political crisis in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, have diverted some of Moscow’s attention away from Ukraine. Russian paratroopers arrived Thursday in the embattled former Soviet republic to help restore order.
Against that backdrop, foreign policy specialists say, the U.S. and NATO may have the upper hand in next week’s meetings. On Monday, American and Russian officials will hold direct talks in Geneva. Analysts say Mr. Putin may be looking for an “off-ramp” just weeks after delivering a series of demands to the West. His list included promises that Ukraine would never join NATO and that the U.S. and NATO would limit troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe.
The U.S. and NATO have roundly rejected those demands and could use next week’s talks to make some of their own. The Western nations want Moscow to cease its military backing of pro-Russian separatists operating in Ukraine’s Donbas region, to begin withdrawing troops from the Crimean Peninsula, which it forcibly annexed in 2014, and to hold preliminary talks on a new intermediate-range nuclear weapons treaty.
Mr. Putin forced the issue of Ukraine onto the international agenda with a massive buildup last year of forces near the border with Kyiv. Some have warned of a prelude to an invasion, but analysts say President Biden has his own assets to play in the crisis.
“We should go into these discussions next week with our own list of good outcomes. … We have some things that we think, if agreed, would make Europe more secure and make the United States more secure and ultimately make Russia more secure. There are things we ought to put on the table,” said William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now vice president of strategic stability and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“No one knows what’s in [Mr. Putin’s] head, but things aren’t working out so well for him right now. He’s probably worried that his Russia-friendly government in Kazakhstan is maybe crumbling, or certainly it’s under attack,” Mr. Taylor told The Washington Times in an interview. “The other reason he might be looking for an off-ramp is that the Biden administration and the Europeans have been pretty clear and pretty explicit and pretty consistent, and even pretty united, about what would happen if Putin comes across [and invades Ukraine]. He may not have anticipated that degree of unity or determination on the part of the Europeans and the Americans.”
‘An atmosphere of escalation’
Indeed, the U.S. and its allies seem to be on the same page. After the talks with U.S. diplomats, Russian officials will meet with NATO leaders in Brussels on Wednesday. On Thursday, they are scheduled to have a discussion in Vienna with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a forum that includes Ukraine.
Top Biden administration officials have made clear that a host of issues will be on the table. They include long-term arms control deals such as a replacement for the defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, which the Trump administration exited after accusing Russia of violating its terms.
Those big-picture discussions will come second, officials said. Any progress must begin with a Russian withdrawal of troops from its border with Ukraine and reduced bilateral tensions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week.
“The real question is whether Russia is serious about diplomacy, serious about de-escalation,” he said at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday alongside German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
“It’s important that we begin these conversations. I think if they’re going to bear fruit, if they’re going to show real progress, that will require de-escalation,” Mr. Blinken said. “It’s very hard to make actual progress in any of these areas in an atmosphere of escalation and threat with a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.”
The administration also faces criticism in some quarters for slow-walking support for Ukraine and not moving quickly enough to ramp up a U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe.
The White House has delivered significant financial aid packages to Ukraine and has publicly warned Moscow that it will send additional weapons to Kyiv in the event of Russian aggression. Still, some specialists say Mr. Biden, who has ruled out U.S. combat troops in Ukraine, should be more aggressive.
“The sequence is wrong. The weapons should be sent now and the force posture should be enhanced in [Eastern Europe] now, telling Moscow that we can always pull them back once you stop your buildup along Ukraine’s borders,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said Thursday at a virtual Atlantic Council forum.
Although the U.S. and its European allies may have a strong hand at next week’s meetings, other analysts warn that Mr. Putin is unpredictable and believes a military play in Ukraine could pay long-term dividends.
“I think he believes that if he can execute an effective military campaign in Ukraine using all these new tools, paralyzing NATO, creating anxiety and fear in Eastern Europe. … He thinks he can push and get NATO to split, to fractionate, and undercut the U.S. role in Europe and ultimately drive the United States out of its position in Europe,” said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.
“He wants to shatter NATO. He’s thinking big,” Mr. Clark said at the Atlantic Council event.