Russian President Vladimir Putin talked with President Joe Biden on Thursday about the crisis in Ukraine and both sides are refusing to budge from their positions.
The call lasted nearly an hour and both sides restated their positions that have led to the diplomatic standoff. The U.S. wants Putin to pull back the 100,000 troops he has deployed to Russia’s border with Ukraine while Putin wants Biden to turn back the clock to the mid-1990s on NATO expansion.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin had radically different objectives going into the call. By massing troops on the border and then publishing two draft treaties that had echoes of Cold War-era demands, Mr. Putin created an international crisis and made plain his desire to wind back the clock 30 years, to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He demanded that Ukraine halt its embrace of the West, that the United States and its allies halt all military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and that NATO freeze its expansion to the east and roll back military deployments near Russia’s borders.
Putin wants the ability to veto any NATO expansion and he has demanded that the alliance not position modern weapons in NATO nations like Poland and the Czech Republic. NATO has flatly rejected giving Russia any veto power over membership and doesn’t understand what Putin is bellyaching about.
During the conversation, Mr. Putin repeatedly accused the United States and NATO nations of placing offensive weapons near Russia’s borders, imperiling the country’s security. It is a charge that Russian officials have made repeatedly in recent times, at first puzzling American officials. At first it appeared they might be referring to Javelin anti-tank weapons and other small munitions the U.S. has provided to Ukraine to deter an attack.
It turns out, Putin is jawboning about missiles that don’t even exist.
But over time, it has become increasingly clear that the Russians are referring to nuclear and non-nuclear “global strike” weapons, including intermediate-range nuclear missiles that were prohibited by a treaty that Moscow violated for several years, and President Trump abandoned. Some U.S. officials say that Mr. Putin’s concern may provide some basis for new negotiations with Russia — especially because there are no current plans to deploy a new generation of such weapons on European soil.
Russia had already violated the missile treaty in question, which is why Trump pulled out in the first place. But before rushing to the negotiating table to surrender, Biden is going to have to deal with the specific threats from Russia about what would happen if the president imposed sanctions on Russia for an invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Ushakov said Mr. Putin warned that any new, harsh sanctions would be a mistake, and that, as Mr. Ushakov put it, “in this situation, it’s better not to make such mistakes.” But he also said that Mr. Biden had observed more than once during the call that “it’s impossible to win” a nuclear war — something Mr. Biden has often said in public.
While the tone of the call was constructive, according to the Kremlin aide, Mr. Putin repeated his claims that Russia felt threatened by an encroaching NATO. He said that Russia would “conduct itself as the United States would behave if offensive weapons were near the United States.”
All of this suggests this is not a repeat of previous crises in Ukraine and Putin may, indeed, be willing to risk war to get what he wants both in Ukraine and from NATO. Putin may feel that the correlation of forces — including factoring in the will to resist him in Washington, London, Paris, and elsewhere in northern Europe — are in his favor and Russia may never be in a better position militarily to take on NATO in a conventional war.
Limiting NATO expansion and turning back the clock to before the bulk of the 30 NATO countries joined the alliance are reckless proposals that would back Biden and the West into a corner. Biden will probably not go to war over an invasion of Ukraine, but if the independence of NATO is threatened…?