A phone conversation between the presidents of Russia and the U.S. has been reported to be constructive by both sides. The conversation preceded impending negotiations over Ukraine and NATO. There are few details available at the moment, but even the ones we do have provide a glimpse into a rather alarming future. During the call, Putin was trying to convince Biden that imposing “super sanctions” against Russia could escalate the existing tensions.
The late-night conversation (Moscow time) between the leaders of the two nuclear powers was supposed to shape the diplomatic landscape for the long and difficult talks on mutual security assurances. In this regard, the follow-up press release was short as well as free of minor details and classified information.
It has been announced that the first 2022 Russia-U.S. talks will take place in Geneva on Jan. 9-10; Russia-NATO talks will be held in Brussels on Jan. 12; and the Russia-Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe talks in Vienna on Jan. 13 will focus on discussing how to deescalate the Ukrainian crisis.
Russia demands that NATO give up its further expansion into former Soviet Union countries so that it does not deploy its military infrastructure there. By making this demand, Vladimir Putin has drawn a red line that the U.S. cannot cross. At the same time, the Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov called it “a matter of life and death.” However, this demand is officially referred to as “proposals.”
Russia has formulated its “proposals” in order to avoid further misunderstanding. The U.S. is currently formulating its own proposals, but it has not yet mentioned them, except for the repeated demand that Russia withdraws its troops from the Ukrainian border, even though Russia is free to station its military forces anywhere it wants within its own borders.
Moreover, Washington is expecting Russia to invade Ukraine, reporting an estimated date (January-February) and estimated scale of the military operation (100 tactical battalion groups). The U.S. also claims that these troops would allegedly cross the Russian-Ukrainian border from four different fronts. In the context of this imminent threat, the Biden administration has come up with a package of crippling sanctions that would involve cutting Russia off from the system of global financial settlements among other things.
It has been declared that this will save Ukraine and provide an adequate solidarity response in the West against Russian aggression.
Western politicians have been debating over whether to impose these new sanctions after the alleged invasion, or beforehand to prevent this invasion from happening. Anyway, this alleged invasion looks incredible under any scenario, except the one where Russia is put in a desperate position similar to that that happened in South Ossetia in 2008. Interestingly enough, Poland, Ukraine and certain “war hawks” in the White House have pushed for the second option. Furthermore, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was allegedly among them, at least according to some sources.
Whether the Americans realize it or not, the very fact of this discussion opened a window of opportunity for Kyiv, a very dangerous window of opportunity. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is currently making all the decisions there, even though he is a narcissist with a dictatorial leadership style and little experience in politics. In fact, he could be expected to take any number of bold or extremely foolish moves to stage a war provocation. This will make Russia retaliate in some way or another, thus it will be exposed to Western super sanctions and incur economic losses, which Zelenskyy will present as his tremendous geopolitical victory.
In order to stop the U.S. and its allies from speculating whether they should impose new sanctions on Russia before or after the alleged invasion and, at the same time, to give Joe Biden a reason to prevent Zelenskyy from doing anything unreasonable, Putin has decided to show some of his cards and make an ultimatum: If these super sanctions are indeed imposed, Russia will completely cut off all diplomatic relations with the U.S.
Biden is an experienced diplomat and negotiator. He perfectly understands what it would mean for the U.S.
The rupture of diplomatic relations will take the current political crisis between the two countries to a whole new level. If all the usual diplomatic channels are disrupted, the political debate might turn into a new version of the Caribbean crisis. Since we are talking about the potential conflict between the two nuclear and competing powers, it can be expected that the world would be much less stable and far more dangerous, whereas any attempts to reboot diplomatic relations will take a considerable toll on both sides.
Given the growing influence of China as Moscow’s strategic partner, Biden wants predictability and stability in relations with Russia to avoid any further escalation. Breaking off diplomatic relations with Russia would be a resounding failure for Biden as a politician and diplomat. The only way out of this crisis would be to initiate a constructive dialogue, similar to the one that is currently underway, although it will require a step back, which will also mean rejecting the idea of imposing new super sanctions on Russia. Perhaps there’s no point in these sanctions at all.
It’s not that Russia will simply take offense and ignore the U.S. on every level if the two countries break off their relations. The point is that Russia will undoubtedly take precautions against the impending military conflict, assuming that the Americans completely rejected any opportunity for negotiations in favor of military escalation. Therefore, the U.S. could finally cross the red line drawn by the Russian president by bringing NATO’s military infrastructure to Russia’s doorstep. Moreover, the opportunity to host NATO military bases will make Ukraine particularly happy.
This is already a major national security threat to Russia, one that will require an equally radical response. As Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the U.S., noted, Russia “will be forced to act accordingly and create potentially volatile situations for the U.S., because “it has come to a point when it can no longer fall victim to American threats.” Even though Russia has fewer opportunities to instigate conflict situations, it can still threaten the U.S. by using certain countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and Latin America as leverage.
Therefore, Washington will be constantly expecting a stab in the back, and there will be no opportunity to discuss the problem so as to de-escalate the situation: War is war, even if it goes undeclared. If the U.S. used to intimidate itself and the whole world with Russia, then once all relations are severed, Russia might intimidate everyone on its own initiative, which could be described with the term “aggressive defense.”
Eventually, Biden could only escalate tensions instead of resolving the current crisis in favor of the U.S. A new crisis will be far more dangerous and impossible to handle in anyone’s favor without significant setbacks and, heaven forbid, casualties.
Based on official reports, it appears that Putin threatened to break off diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time. It must have made an impression on the U.S. At any rate, the details of the discussion between the two presidents are extremely sparse and incomparable with the elaborate explanations provided by Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov. Every U.S. agency should now be working as usual, so we can expect to get more details in connection with this phone call very soon.
Jen Psaki and other high-ranking officials keep saying that Russia will be held accountable for the invasion of Ukraine, although the negotiations have already advanced to a whole new level. That’s why they sound like a broken record; there is not enough data that would allow them to come up with something new. They’re still trying to figure it all out.
However, Biden attempted to immediately defuse the situation by saying that a nuclear war would be unacceptable and the U.S. had no plans of deploying nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Moscow is not interested in Biden’s intentions, but it is interested in written security assurances promising that any nuclear conflict will never happen. Thus, these security assurances could put Russia’s fears of a potential nuclear war to rest.
Now the ball is in the American court. It will be easier to understand what is coming next after the first round of the upcoming talks. In general, they are likely to last a year or even more. There is no doubt that it is a historic moment.
Being a Cold War politician, Biden can be trusted when he says he prefers stability over dangerous volatility. It remains to be seen whether he is ready to sacrifice something for this — or he will let the situation play itself out, constantly worrying that someone’s mistake, probably made by Zelenskyy, will finally destroy the whole framework of global security. If that happens, the media will finally stop discussing the prospects for breaking the “Ukrainian impasse,” moving on to discussing the prospects for a third world war.