President Joe Biden will hold a secure video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin December 7 against the backdrop of a menacing Russian military build-up near Ukraine. U.S. intelligence believes the Russians may amass 175,000 troops near its western neighbor early in 2022.
Does Putin intend to invade Ukraine? He could be bluffing. In April, the Russian army deployed a large force near Ukraine but did not act. On the other hand, given the scale of ongoing military preparations and the hostile rhetoric pouring out of Moscow, Putin may mean it this time.
It is also possible that Putin has not yet made a decision. He likes options and might hope the threat of force will secure concessions from Kyiv toward settling the simmering conflict in Donbas in eastern Ukraine on Moscow’s terms. In any case, the Biden-Putin conversation may offer one of the last best chances to affect Kremlin calculations of the costs of an assault on Ukraine.
Biden has said he would make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to attack. He should lay out the potential costs to ensure his Russian counterpart fully understands what would follow a Russian invasion. Those costs are substantial:
Biden should also tell Putin that Washington is prepared to engage more actively on diplomacy. He should offer to join the German and French leaders in the Normandy format process aimed at mediating a resolution between Russia and Ukraine. He should also reaffirm the U.S. position supporting the Minsk agreements.
Biden might offer two qualifiers regarding Minsk. First, all parties must implement the agreements, including Russia. Second, U.S. support does not mean acceptance of Russia’s desired interpretation of undefined Minsk provisions. For example, “special status” for Donbas should not include the right to veto national-level policies.
Questions about Europe’s security architecture and how Ukraine and Russia fit in underlie the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Biden should offer Putin a discussion on those issues, while noting that they cannot solve the questions over the heads of the Europeans. The Ukrainians, in particular, need to be at the table.
Biden can tell Putin there is no enthusiasm within NATO for putting Kyiv on a membership track now. But the alliance will not reverse its “open door” policy. Doing so would require consensus, and not many members — let alone all 30 — would agree to such a reversal. “Not now but not never” for Ukraine would defuse the question by kicking it down the road. If Russia genuinely worked with the United States and NATO members to mitigate the tensions that now divide Europe, its relationship with the alliance could well change.
Biden can also tell Putin that he would be ready to take due account of legitimate Russian security interests. For example, Putin expressed concern about deployment in Ukraine of U.S. missiles that could strike Moscow. Biden can tell Putin that, in the right context, Washington would assure Moscow that it would not deploy offensive missiles on Ukrainian territory.
The U.S. president should aim to leave Putin with an understanding that military action would have painful costs for Russia but that U.S. diplomacy is prepared to engage more actively to resolve the problems at the root of the crisis. That just might help stop a war.
Originally for Brookings