For Westerners, those images were an illustration of the differences between a liberal president and an autocrat. For Russians, and not them alone, it showed the contrast between an unsecured gaffe prone president needing the security of a team around him; and another president capable to master all elements of a situation and go alone to discuss with his partner, in his familiar old fashioned décor. After the session, officials were tasked to reveal a carefully edited summery of the conversation. Americans were in a hurry; Russians were slower.
More importantly, there was the timing. As the latest crisis in Ukraine was reaching dangerous proportions, the leaders of two big nuclear powers decided it was time to move from accusations and “red lights” to send the message that both share the same willingness, and readiness, to keep channels open. It was also the moment to show their understanding that European security is larger than a standoff between Russia and a former Soviet republic. For the first time, numerous Western political figures and analysts questioned the wisdom of the March 2008 Bucharest NATO declaration, which offered membership to Georgia and Ukraine. For the Alliance, it was a vague signal of support, but for Kiev and Tbilisi, it was a real promise. For the Kremlin, a real threat.
Especially when, five months later, in August 2008, the Georgian president was so convinced that NATO would send troops to his side that he gave the green light for his army to shell the barracks of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. He guessed rightly that Russians would be obliged to react, but wrongly thought that the West will come to the rescue, pushing Russians into a humiliated retreat from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Those secessionist regions would have no choice, but to reintegrate Georgia unconditionally. It failed, and costed Saakashvili his presidency, but the lesson was quickly lost. During the Maidan revolution, the West was so thrilled by Ukraine’s liberal move that it did not call for restrain when nationalist groups decided to move to Crimea to expel “foreign” military bases. Russia took it seriously, occupied Crimea; then, drunk with its success, sided with Donbass opponents to Kiev’s new authorities.
A larger world
This time, the American president decided to take the situation in his hands. His administration has larger missions, in the Pacific zone, to deter China. He wanted to reassess US involvement abroad after the Afghanistan hasty retreat, not to be distracted by a borders problem on the European continent. But he had to find a delicate balance between hawks and more dovish circles in Washington, to show leadership, to reassure his allies, even to damp expectations. Biden message was that, first of all, he was in favour of dialogue with Russia, but a robust dialogue due to the situation at Ukrainian borders. 2/ that “robust” means the imposition of further sanctions, drawn with America’s allies before the meeting. 3/ that those sanctions will strictly target economic and financial sectors, including, once more, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; 4/ that he excluded sending US or NATO military boots on the spot.
It was bold, but it was also conditional – Washington and its allies will act “in case of invasion of Ukraine”. Which indirectly vindicates Putin’s gamble to use military tension to get the West around the table to discuss the key issue of Ukraine relations with NATO. And in the same time, to enlarge the dialogue far beyond the Ukrainian issue to open a direct dialogue between Moscow and Washington concerning the security and development of the all-European continent. Unless ones concludes that president Putin is far more dangerous than guessed, it is difficult to believe that, knowing well intelligence capabilities, Russia might have prepared a surprise attack months in advance. In other words, Putin wanted to force the dialogue directly with Washington – but on an old-fashioned, and dangerous, position of strength.
Return to Geneva
The agreements reached on 7th December provide for an enlargement of those adopted at the June Geneva summit, notably the creation of contact groups. They have provided discreet, but efficient channels for American and Russian experts to exchange views and speak to each other. Now, there will be more of them and tasked, among others, to meet Biden-Putin agreement to “form a structure” that would deal with the NATO role on the European continent and in the transatlantic security pact. Post-summit comments by American officials made clear that Biden seized the opportunity to clarify his priorities in foreign policy, in direction of his allies and rivals alike. In short, America is Back Again; its national security is still guaranteed by military might, but growingly by economic sanctions. Biden’s America will enlarge its role of promotor, and guardian, of human rights and liberal values together will its allies. But the new diplomatic dialogue with Russia will include the exploration of ways to “discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO at large” and cooling the temperature along the Eastern front.
In the context of the Ukrainian crisis, and a growingly assertive Europe about “EU sovereignty”, both Ukraine and EU were largely absent from the picture. As usually, the EU Commission’s PR machine has been activated, this time to convince other EU institutions, and the public, that Brussels was kept informed before the videoconference and immediately after. The agenda points to another version. One can guess that Biden did not want to be too transparent with its allies before the 7th December meeting, knowing the risk he might be faced to a flow of undiplomatic uncoordinated European positions. Those would have weighed on him during his meeting with Putin, a president who has no public opinion nor allies to satisfy. Biden has indeed telephoned the Commission and a few national leaders, after the core of the discussions and agreements have already been made public. He phoned separately the 9 “Visegrad countries”, who tend to see any olive branch offered to Russia as a capitulation. But this behaviour shows that, even in the eyes of its allies, the European Union is still an organisation talking with different voices.
Against the wall
Ukraine had to wait 48 hours for Biden to have direct talks with president Zelensky. He was told about Washington being fully on his side, how president Biden told to Putin “eyes to yes” (on video) what kind of extreme measures he would be submitted to in case of invasion of Ukraine. Retorsion measures includes the sending of more American soldiers to bases located on European soil close to Russia. Of course, the Ukrainian forces will receive more equipment and training as their country is now an open market for arms producers and private training companies. But they will be left to their own.
In other words, Zelensky would be well inspired to avoid any attempt to regain territorial integrity by force. NATO will not intervene as Ukraine, having unwisely been promised membership, is not a member and cannot benefit from the Alliance collective defence. This message will weight on the presidential electoral campaign, in which Zelensky has still to decide if his chances of reelection are better served playing the pacifier card, or the fighter one.