Putin’s D.C. Masterplan

Vladimir Putin
Photo by Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 8, 2021

On Tuesday, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke for more than two hours over video conference to discuss the massive buildup of Russia’s military forces on its border with Ukraine. The call came together quickly after the Kremlin made it known that it expected a conversation between Biden and Putin by the end of the year, implying that all the other contacts from American officials—National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, C.I.A. director Bill Burns—were not enough. Instead, Putin got another bilateral meeting with Biden, his second in six months. 

In the 24 hours since the meeting ended, Putin and Biden, as well as some of their emissaries, have taken to the Russian and American media to spin the summit. On the American side were Sullivan and Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and a known Russia hawk. (Her handing out snacks to protestors on Kyiv’s Maidan during the pro-European revolution in 2013 has made her a radioactive bogeyman in Russia, though the Kremlin lifted its sanctions on her to allow her to come to Moscow for talks in October.) Both Nuland and Sullivan were stern and unyielding. Nuland said America and its allies “will be united in imposing severe consequences on Moscow for its actions, including high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.” Echoing her, a stone-faced Sullivan cautioned that, if Russia invaded Ukraine, the Nordstream II pipeline would remain unfinished forever and that the U.S. would do “things we did not do in 2014,” when Russia first invaded Ukraine. (I told you about the Nordstream threat earlier this week as well as about other possible sanctions that the Biden administration is said to be considering. They reportedly include the “nuclear” option of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international financial system. Both those moves would hurt Russia, but they would also really sting for Germany and other European countries that have close trade ties with Russia. More on this in a bit.) Biden, speaking to reporters outside the White House this afternoon, said that “there were no minced words” and that he “made it very clear” to Putin “that if he in fact invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences.” 

Russian officials have sounded far more conciliatory after amping up their rhetoric in the week before the summit. Putin made sure to restate that even talking about a Russian invasion was “provocative” and that he is not satisfied with Ukraine’s position vis-a-vis NATO. Still, he was clearly at pains to portray yesterday’s meeting as productive. “We agreed we will continue this discussion and we’ll do it in a substantive way,” he told reporters. Yury Ushakov, Putin’s normally press-shy foreign policy advisor, has been particularly active in the Russian press, reassuring people that “there wasn’t even discussion” of sending Russian troops into Ukraine. He added that when Biden threatened sanctions in the meeting, it was done “in an acceptable form, befitting the presidential level.” 

(Ushakov also told Russian journalists that Biden promised the Russian government access to the diplomatic property seized in 2018, when the Trump administration reluctantly punished Russia for its poisoning of Sergey Skripal on British soil. This got my attention as something wildly implausible. And sure enough, when I asked a high-ranking source in the Biden administration if this had in fact been promised, they instantly dismissed the idea as laughable. It confirmed what my gut had told me about the move: it was likely an effort by Moscow to back the Biden administration into a corner by telling the public of a promise, even though it had actually never been made. Sneaky, sneaky!)

Why the conciliatory tone, just one week after talk of red lines and plunging Europe into the “nightmare” of war? Putin clearly wants Biden to take him and his demands seriously. The last president was so deferential to Putin that it was by turns comical and terrifying. This president, however, was deeply involved in Ukraine, acting as Barack Obama’s pointman on the war there. At the time, Biden was very clearly on Ukraine’s side, and therefore against Putin. Now that Biden is president, Putin seems to want to make sure that his point of view and priorities are considered, too, that he is seen as an equal and as someone to be reckoned with. To do that, he has imposed himself on the news cycle—and into the White House’s priorities. In April, he sent tens of thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border, who were pulled back when Biden got on the phone and invited Putin to Geneva, where they met in June. Putin got all the pomp and circumstance befitting, as Biden called him, “a worthy adversary.” There have also been constant meetings between Russian and American officials at very high levels, and yesterday’s video meeting was the fourth one-on-one conversation Putin has had with Biden, though the American president has been in office for less than a year. Putin has clearly liked this, even if the meetings involved threats of sanctions. It was almost like the threat of punishment made him feel more validated, more respected and feared. As he told Russian reporters, “We are working on the assumption that our concerns, at least this time, will be heard.” 

This is just a temporary salve, if it is one at all. Putin has not given the order to pull back his troops, and this build-up is much more serious than the one he deployed in the spring. (Plus, after that withdrawal, Russia left behind certain key pieces of military infrastructure, in case they could prove useful down the line.) This military maneuver has all the trappings of preparing for a long and hard campaign, including bringing up robust supply lines to service all those men and materiel. The invasion plans, which the U.S. has shared with the Ukrainian government to shake them out of their nonchalance, have not been nullified. Nor has Putin’s belief, described in a long and tedious op-ed he published in July, that Ukraine and Russia are just parts of a whole, one people unified by a common history, culture, and “blood ties.” His conviction, which he expressed back in 2008 to George W. Bush, that Ukraine is not a real country is, apparently, firm as ever. His resolve in blocking it from NATO accession is, too.

Neither did the summit help America and Europe develop any desire to send their soldiers to defend Ukraine, a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map. Doing so would be politically impossible, domestically, especially for an American president that has staked his legacy on ending America’s war in Afghanistan, committing to the policy even when that ending became a slow-motion disaster. Which is why all the sanctions the Biden administration has promised will only go so far—and that too has not changed. Because there is no threat of military force (thank god), the threat of sanctions can only do so much. And because these sanctions may seriously harm our European allies economically, they have to be implemented carefully and when there is really no other choice. And since Putin has clearly demonstrated that he is fine with some economic hardship if it means making Ukraine feel more off-limits for the West or to secure his place as the leader of an important power, the same question we faced before Tuesday’s summit remains: What’s the point of sanctions if they hurt both Europe and Russia, but Putin doesn’t care? Would we just be punishing Europe instead—and with little result? 

Putin’s temper may have cooled a bit, but it’s still too early to say if an invasion is off the table. His army is still there and, if an opportunity or provocation presented itself, I have little doubt that he wouldn’t seriously consider exploiting it.