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The Week In Russia: Trying Talks

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (on-screen) in the Situation Room at the White House on December 7.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (on-screen) in the Situation Room at the White House on December 7.

As tensions persisted over Russia’s military buildup on its western flank and its designs on Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden held talks with Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the leaders of nine NATO nations as he sought “de-escalation of the current crisis through deterrence, defense, and dialogue."

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Deployments And Diplomacy

For weeks, a big Russian military buildup that Western intelligence agencies warn could presage a major offensive targeting Ukraine has added to already high tensions between Moscow on the one hand and Kyiv, NATO, Washington, and the West on the other.

The fears of a new invasion and a grim guessing game about the Kremlin’s intentions have been fueled additionally by a series of written and spoken remarks by President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials that seem designed to sow doubts about Ukraine’s right to choose its friends and its foreign policy -- and even, in some cases, its right to exist as a sovereign state.

And without actually admitting it, Putin and his government have made perfectly clear that the military moves north and east of Ukraine’s borders and in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, are aimed at least in part to put pressure on Kyiv and the West over the ongoing conflict in the Donbas and, much more broadly, the issues of NATO expansion and security in Europe as a whole.

Russia, analysts say, appears to be trying to leverage the Donbas war into strong Kremlin influence over Ukraine, the end of NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union, restrictions on Western weapons deployments in eastern Europe, and even a new security architecture on the continent -- one in which it would play a powerful role.

Now, after a video call between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden on December 7, the focus of the tense standoff may be shifting, to some degree, to diplomacy, at least for the time being. There is no sign of a Russian pullback, but where talk of war has long been in the air, talk of talks has now joined it.

Judging by the White House and Kremlin readouts, the two-hour videoconference between the presidents seems to have left them deeply at odds on the array questions at hand, including who is to blame for the increased tensions that have added more poison to badly strained ties.

But on the question of what is to be done about it, they seem to agree on at least one answer: Talk.

The statements from both administrations said that Biden and Putin had tasked officials with holding follow-up contacts.

A tentative agreement to hold further talks may seem like an unimportant afterthought, particularly given the momentousness of the situation -- worries that Russia could launch a new offensive against its neighbor within six weeks or so -- and the readouts gave very different impressions about the potential content of those talks, with each side suggesting its concerns about the other’s actions would be the focus. On the U.S. side, that meant “the deep concerns of the United States and our European allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine.”

Quest For Quiet On The 'Eastern Front'

But Biden mentioned the matter again a day later, saying he hoped to soon announce meetings involving the United States, at least four other “major” NATO allies, and Russia. Participants, he said, would “discuss the future of Russia's concerns relative to NATO writ large and whether or not we can work out any accommodations as it relates to bringing down the temperature along the eastern front.”

Sounds underwhelming, perhaps, but it’s potentially a big deal: For years, and especially in recent years, months, and even days, Putin has been accusing Washington and the West of ignoring what Russia says are its concerns about NATO enlargement and the alliance’s activities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

From a 2007 Munich Security Conference speech in which he railed against the United States, to an address to parliament in 2018 in which he talked up several weapons systems Russian was developing and demanded, “Listen to us now,” he has used prominent platforms to make dramatic remarks aimed at audiences both abroad and at home.

The flip side: Putin is seen speaking with Biden on the video call from the Black Sea resort of Sochi on December 7.
The flip side: Putin is seen speaking with Biden on the video call from the Black Sea resort of Sochi on December 7.

So Biden’s clear statement that the proposed talks would touch on Russia’s stated concerns could potentially mark the start of a new phase in the severely strained relationship between Moscow and the West, even if it does not change the fact that the United States considers some of those stated concerns groundless or disingenuous and some of the Kremlin’s demands -- such as a binding agreement that NATO will not take in Ukraine, Georgia, or other countries close to Russia as members -- unacceptable nonstarters.

There is, very clearly, a great deal of room for further tension -- or worse.

For one thing, there’s the fundamental question of whether Putin really wants to ease the confrontation with the West, given that he uses it to shore up power at home, analysts say, attempting to promote unity and patriotism by accusing the United States and the European Union of seeking to restrain Russia. And since some of Russia’s demands are unacceptable to the United States, NATO, or both, another crucial question is whether they are really red lines or are, in fact, starting positions for negotiations.

Potential Pitfalls

Either way, though, if talks persist but Moscow maintains military forces in place for a possible new offensive, there’s a danger that, at any moment, Putin could throw up his hands in frustration -- whether real or fake wouldn’t matter much -- and claim that the West was still not listening.

For Biden, talks with Russia are a potential tightrope -- presenting “minefields” for the U.S. president, as an Associated Press article put it.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its support for separatists whose war against Kyiv’s forces in the eastern Donbas region has killed more than 13,000 people, and the new military buildup, he risks being accused of rewarding aggression.

And for many in Ukraine, talks between NATO nations and Russia are bound to be fraught with fears that the United States or the Western alliance may sacrifice Kyiv’s sovereignty, or force an unfavorable settlement of the Donbas conflict upon it, in a bid to mend relations with Moscow and keep it at bay.

Biden speaks by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Oval Office at the White House on December 9.
Biden speaks by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Oval Office at the White House on December 9.

In a 90-minute phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on December 9, Biden “reaffirmed the United States' unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity" and "made clear that the United States and its allies and partners are committed to the principle of 'no decisions or discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine,'" the White House said.

Biden also called the leaders of nine NATO nations in Central and Eastern Europe, underscoring Washington’s “sacred commitment” to the alliance’s collective security principle and pledging “close consultation and coordination…as we work towards de-escalation of the current crisis through deterrence, defense, and dialogue."

A comment that Putin made at around the same time Biden and Zelenskiy were speaking will only add to the concerns about Moscow’s intentions toward Ukraine. Seemingly seeking to keep the pressure on Kyiv and the West for resolution to the conflict that would serve Moscow’s purposes, he made the baseless claim that “what is happening now in the Donbas…is very reminiscent of genocide.”

U.S. officials have stressed that Biden made no concessions to Putin -- on Ukraine, NATO, or anything else -- at their meeting. And the talks he said are being arranged would clearly be meant to address Western concerns about Moscow’s actions, not just Russian grievances.

Talking About Talking

At a press briefing after the Biden-Putin call, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that any talks with Russia aimed at easing tensions and addressing one another’s concerns could end quickly if Russia escalates further. But he said the Biden administration believes “that there is no substitute for direct dialogue between leaders, and that is true in spades when it comes to the U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Many political analysts also advocate for dialogue.

“To some hawks in the West, President Biden’s willingness even to talk to his Russian counterpart was a concession,” Mark Galeotti, an analyst of Russian politics and honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, wrote in a December 8 opinion article in The Moscow Times.

“This is a deeply dangerous contention, as dialogue and diplomacy are precisely at their most valuable with those with whom one disagrees and in times of the greatest tension,” he wrote.

Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter that her organization believes the U.S. approach in evidence on the Biden-Putin call “is on the right track -- make clear to Russia that the repercussions of escalated aggression will be met with a lot of things they don't want, including sanctions and a continued military buildup.”

But “a sustainable solution is going to require a lot more talking,” she wrote.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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