Yesterday morning I expressed some pessimism in terms of what sort of progress might be made during Joe Biden’s anticipated phone call with Vladimir Putin. After all, weeks of shuttle diplomacy Washington, Moscow, Paris, and Vienna haven’t appeared to move the needle noticeably. Did Biden have some new offer that would be acceptable to our NATO partners while convincing Putin that there was a viable compromise available?

Well, the calls between Putin and both Biden and Emmanuel Macron took place as scheduled. In a rare instance of transparency from the Biden administration, the White House put out a statement summing up the call. The result was essentially a carbon copy of what we’ve been hearing for weeks. Russia is still making demands seen as “non-starters” by NATO and Biden claims to have warned Putin of “swift and severe” consequences. If Macron made any progress with Putin, he’s not saying anything about it. (NBC News)

President Joe Biden on Saturday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the consequences of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which U.S. officials have said could be imminent, would be “swift and severe,” according to a White House description of the conversation.

Biden told Putin that the U.S. and its allies and partners would “will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs” should Moscow move on its neighbor, the White House said.

Biden also reiterated that a Russian invasion would produce “widespread human suffering and diminish Russia’s standing” in the world, the White House said, adding that Biden was “clear with President Putin that while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios.”

According to the White House release, the call lasted for a little more than an hour. What in the world could they have been talking about for that long without making an ounce of progress? We’re at the point where it would be nice if the White House would simply release a transcript of the conversation, but I seriously doubt that will ever happen.

I believe that the fact that the generally secretive Biden White House put out this summary of the call is important. Assuming it’s accurate (and that’s a big assumption), it appears that Biden’s team is desperate to give the public the impression that Joe Biden is playing the tough guy and verbally roughing up Putin. He keeps talking about “swift and severe” consequences from a unified front of NATO and EU allies. Given the public’s dismal view of Biden’s handling of foreign policy matters thus far (at least according to almost every poll taken this year), the President is badly in need of a win that he can point to.

But is there a “win” available on the board? This situation can really only head in one of two ways… either Putin invades or he pulls his troops back, right? If he pulls back, repeating his claim that he never intended to invade in the first place, then Biden is left looking like he totally botched the intelligence management process and overreacted for no reason. That’s not a great look.

If Putin does invade, Ukraine almost certainly falls, though they may wind up fighting a sustained insurgency for a while. Biden is then basically forced to keep to his word and not send any troops in to defend the Ukrainians (or even the fleeing Americans) from Russia’s military offensive. Instead, he’ll launch crippling sanctions and shut down the Nord Stream II pipeline. That will splinter the alliance between the US and Germany, which needs the pipeline to be completed. It will also be a signal that Russia can invade pretty much any non-NATO neighboring country it pleases and the combined might of the United States, NATO, and the EU is incapable of stopping them.

I’ve given up attempting to read Putin’s mind at this point. On any given morning I wake up convinced (for a few minutes) that Putin is either definitely going to invade Ukraine or that he never intended to from the start and this was all a bluff to try to build some leverage. The one thing we’ve managed to accomplish at this point is to set Putin up to be the bad guy and a bare-faced liar if he goes ahead and invades now (on any claimed pretense) after publicly insisting for so long that he wouldn’t do it. Will he care? Probably not. And Russia would be aided in working around any new sanctions by its friends in China and Iran, along with the rest of the new Axis of Evil. Either way, I’m not seeing a very happy ending to this story no matter which way it goes.

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