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Analysis: Moscow presents Washington with a no-win situation: capitulate on Ukrainian sovereignty or risk all-out war
Joe Biden is preparing for a virtual summit with Vladimir Putin with the aim of fending off the threat of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The summit has been previewed by the Kremlin. The White House has not confirmed it, but Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that “high-level diplomacy is a priority of the president” and pointed to the teleconference meeting with Xi Jinping earlier in November.
The stakes could hardly be higher. China has been menacing Taiwan, while Russia has been conducting a military buildup around Ukraine. In both cases the US could be drawn into a conflict, with potentially catastrophic results.
The head of Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency, Brig Gen Kyrylo Budanov, told the Military Times on Saturday that Russia had more than 92,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and was preparing for an attack in January or February. Others say the threat is not so imminent and that Russia has a lot to lose by invading Ukraine, but few if any experts would rule out an invasion entirely.
In confronting Putin over Ukraine, every policy option available to Biden is fraught with risk.
In a statement on Wednesday commemorating the Holodomor famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s, Biden restated “our unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. Such statements of support are meant as a deterrent, but each time they are repeated they heighten the dilemma that Biden will face if Putin calls his bluff.
“What I am worried about, frankly, is that if we, the United States, continue to make ironclad commitments to Ukraine and get ourselves in a position where we are obliged to defend it, or not to defend it and look completely weak, we will be putting ourselves in a very difficult position,” said Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at the City University of New York.
Hanna Shelest, the director of security programmes at the Foreign Policy Council’s Ukrainian Prism thinktank, said US support for Ukrainian sovereignty did not imply it would ultimately be drawn into combat.
“There has been panic and hype about new American boots on the ground. Come on, who is inviting you to fight?” Shelest said. “When we talk about a guarantee of security there are plenty of other options. For example, sharing intelligence, the satellite pictures of the buildup, and making it public is already a support. You don’t need an American soldier to stand at the contact line. You can have diplomatic statements at the proper level that are very clear.”
CNN has reported there is an urgent policy debate in the Biden administration over whether to step up deliveries of weaponry, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Some in the administration say such weapons would raise the costs of any Russian military incursion and thereby influence Putin’s calculations. Others argue it would represent a dangerous escalation, and increase fear of a US or Nato attack, which is at the base of Russia’s aggressive military stance.
“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Fiona Hill, a former senior director for European and Russian affairs in the national security council.
Hill helped prepare for Donald Trump’s summits with Putin and advised the Biden team before his first meeting as president with the Russian leader in June. She said new talks were urgent and essential, but did contain traps Biden would have to avoid.
“The problem right now is the way that Russia is framing the Ukraine issue as a very stark choice: the United States capitulate on Ukrainian sovereignty – over the heads of not just Ukraine but also of Europe – or risk all-out war,” Hill said. She added that the Kremlin had long wanted to return to the cold war paradigm of the two superpowers sitting down and deciding on spheres of influence.
One of the solutions being floated is for Russian fears to be assuaged by ruling out future Nato membership for Ukraine as well as putting limits on its military capabilities, but Hill said that would make a nonsense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, setting a damaging precedent.
“We can have a virtual summit. We can have the sitdown with the United States and Russia, but Ukraine can’t be on the bargaining table. We can talk about strategic stability, but we’re not in a position to bargain away Ukraine,” Hill said. “And it can’t just be the United States. The Europeans have to take this seriously.”
Menon, a co-author of the 2015 book Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, suggested that the imminent threat was being exaggerated. He said 87,000 Russian troops were in the region abutting Ukraine well before the current crisis, and the region was broadly defined. Some of the troops were more than 430 miles (700km) from the border, he said.
“Even if one assumes that Russia could throw 100,000 troops into battle, it would not have the numerical advantage [generally calculated at 3:1] to overwhelm a Ukrainian army which, for all its faults, is now better trained and equipped and has better morale than it did in 2014,” he said.
“Plus, the farther west Russia pushes, the more it will stretch its supply lines, risk hit-and-run attacks that seek to disrupt them and encounter areas with larger proportions of [unfriendly] ethnic Ukrainians. These problems, and the fact that Putin would be burning all bridges with the west by invading Ukraine, are either ignored or given short shrift in the prevailing narratives here.”
That does not mean that Putin would not ultimately launch an invasion if Russian red lines were crossed, Menon said. “We should not think that, [if] push comes to shove, when they say we will not allow Ukraine to join Nato … that they’re just bluffing. I don’t think they’re bluffing at all.”