Putin, Ukraine, and Biden


Whether or not Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border to start yet another invasion of Ukraine, the reasons for Russia’s massing troops on the Russian side of the line fall into two categories. The first, permanent and structural, might be called the Ukraine management. A politically stable, economically thriving, and western-oriented Ukraine is unacceptable to the Kremlin. So “rattling the cage” is a permanent part of Russia’s policy toward its neighbor. Show who’s the boss. Upbraid the uppity Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who of late has talked tough about recovering the de-facto Russian protectorates of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Zelensky has also refused to give up Ukrainian sovereignty over those territories by capitulating to the so-called Minsk Agreements signed by his predecessor, and may, in Moscow’s view, have gotten too cozy with the “West.” With the Ukrainian presidential elections next year, it is time to hint that Zelensky means war.

The other two factors are contingent but perhaps even more urgent. Emerging from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s economic prospects are bleak, poverty is up, the Navalny protests were the largest in Putin’s 20 years in power (except for the winter 2011-12 rallies), and Putin’s popularity is down in the historically lower ranges. The country, in the Kremlin’s reckoning, needed a dose of a bracing military-patriotic upper — something bright and shiny, like a cleaned and oiled Kalashnikov — that in the past invariably boosted Putin’s support (and thus his regime’s legitimacy).

Then there was the Biden “killer” interview with George Stephanopoulos. It is well and good to call a spade a spade and a murderer a murderer, but to imagine this street urchin from the streets of post-war Leningrad letting an insult go without retaliation is to be completely ignorant of Putin’s character — and his record. The saber-rattling on the Ukrainian border may have been planned for some time this year, but to begin it now, when Russian tanks and artillery are stuck in the spring mud, was almost certainly the first tranche of Putin’s revenge.

Which brings us to the summit that President Biden suggested in a recent call to Putin. Whether in the Soviet or the post-Soviet times, every summit with a US president brings a very substantial domestic political bounce to the Kremlin’s denizens. Of course, this is a built-in price; a kind of ante for a poker game with Moscow, which may be worth paying when there is something to be gotten out of a summit. What, though, can possibly be gained at this point? To the Russians, a summit trumps everything else, including the just-announced sanctions on Russia and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats from the US. In what they will see as a clear win for Putin, he responded to Biden’s insult by flexing his muscles, and the American president is now begging for an audience with the Kremlin chief.

The Biden administration’s foreign policy strategists may have been possessed of some deep — very deep — strategic considerations inaccessible to amateurs, but until they show their hand this hasty summit looks like an unforced and costly error. Interpreted as a reward for the threat of an aggression — which is exactly how Putin will interpret it — it is precisely the wrong way to begin Biden’s four years of dealing with Moscow.

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