Putin’s Talk Therapy

Photo by Alexei Nikolsky via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 31, 2021

When I first heard, on Wednesday afternoon, that there was going to be a last-minute phone call between the Kremlin and the White House, at Vladimir Putin’s request, I immediately imagined the worst: Putin was calling, I thought, to give Biden a formal heads-up that Russia was going to invade Ukraine after all. The news caught me as I was shopping at Target, and I stopped in my tracks, in the middle of the shampoo aisle, picturing a split screen, with Biden on the phone on one side, and, on the other, Russian troops pouring over the border. I quickly texted some of my sources in the U.S. and in allied governments, and asked: Is this it? A New Year’s invasion?

They assured me that it was not. Even though they weren’t quite sure why Putin had asked for this call, they didn’t think it was to give the American president a fifteen-minute warning. That was comforting, though, with Putin, who knows. I didn’t think he’d invade Crimea or eastern Ukraine in 2014, either.

In the end, thankfully, my sources were right. The call, which Russian state TV billed as a very important meeting, ended up being not much of anything. According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters after the 50-minute call ended, this was “part of a series of end-of-the-year calls that President Putin has been engaged in.” It is, after all, the Russian custom to reach out to business partners and clients and wish them a happy new year, and, for the last two weeks of the year, the streets of Moscow are always clogged with couriers ferrying corporate gifts across the city. To wish his fellow presidents a happy new year, Putin called—well, whom didn’t he call? He called the leaders of most former Soviet republics (except for Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltics); Mahmoud Abbas; Jair Bolsonaro; the presidents of Argentina and Vietnam; Xi Jinping; the pope; Queen Elizabeth; and yes, Joe Biden. But unlike with the 70 other leaders he called, Putin’s chat with Biden was not as chummy. “This was not some mere pleasantries,” said the senior administration official. “This was a serious, substantive conversation.”

And yet this call with Biden, the second that the two presidents have had this month alone, was more of the same. Piecing together the official read-outs and what Russian and American presidential advisors told the press immediately afterward, Biden told Putin not to invade Ukraine. Putin said Ukraine can’t join NATO. Biden said—and I’m very much paraphrasing here—we can’t promise you that. Putin said, whatever, don’t put your rockets on my borders. Biden said, we’re not? Putin said, if you sanction us, it’s fucking over between us. Biden said, well, don’t re-invade Ukraine! And then, according to the Kremlin, “the presidents exchanged New Year’s greetings and their very best wishes.” 

If anything, this phone call was a scene-setter ahead of a series of negotiations that will begin in Geneva on January 9. The point, according to my sources, will be to offer Putin an off-ramp, one in which some areas of agreement can be found so that Putin can declare a win and pull back his troops without losing too much face. 

Even before they’ve begun, the negotiations—“on which the world has locked its attention,” according to Kremlin TV—are giving Putin what he has always craved: status. The U.S. government may see Russia as a country caught in a long and steady decline, a belligerent power whose days of empire are long behind it. But that is, of course, not how Putin sees it. Putin sees himself as the leader of a world superpower. Barack Obama’s 2014 comment that Russia was nothing more than “a regional power” is said to have infuriated Putin far more than any of the sanctions Russia was slapped with that year. (He publicly called the statement “disrespectful.”) Donald Trump took Putin seriously and spoke of him as an equal, which was exactly what Putin wanted to hear. And the Biden administration, understanding this but also knowing that positive change in Russia is impossible while Putin is still alive, has given Putin much of the attention he craves as a way to soothe the irascible Russian leader. In June, after Putin sent tens of thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border, Biden mollified him with a bilateral summit in Switzerland, complete with all the pomp and circumstance of a Very Historical Meeting. The point isn’t to simply humor him or fluff his ego, though. It is also to calm him enough so that he doesn’t do anything truly crazy on the world stage. As one source familiar with the administration’s thinking recently told me, if we have to keep talking to Putin so he doesn’t invade Ukraine, we’re happy to have as many of these calls as he wants. The source paused and added, well, maybe not as many as he wants.

It’s not a terrible strategy. But I worry about its inherent limits. At some point, Putin will demand real action, not words; treaties, not phone calls. (Which he’s already doing.) There’s also the issue of whether Putin really wants these negotiations for the sake of the treaties, or as a way to play for time. It could also be a way to dot his i’s and cross his t’s before invading Ukraine anyway, to show that, unlike in 2014, when he made, by his own admission, the precipitous decision to annex Crimea, he did his due diligence before crossing the border. There have been more than a few hints that this is exactly what’s in store. In a speech before his generals on December 21, for example, Putin said that he wants nothing short of “longterm, binding guarantees” that Ukraine won’t join NATO, only to go off script and riff angrily about how it’s not like legally binding guarantees from the U.S. mean anything anymore anyway. “But we know well that you can’t even trust this,” he snarled. “Because the United States easily leaves international agreements that they lose interest in for one reason or another. Easily, with or without explanation.”

If he thinks any formal guarantees from the U.S. are meaningless, then why does he want one?  One administration source told me that, despite his protests, Putin knows as well as anyone else that Ukraine is never going to join NATO. It feels a lot like a pretext, like Putin wants to have a technical reason—like not getting such a guarantee or the violation of any guarantee he does get—to justify what he’s already decided to do, sooner or later: bring Ukraine to heel, whether by force or, as some are starting to whisper, by sponsoring a coup in Kyiv that would bring a more Moscow-friendly government to power. 

Which is all to say, despite the momentousness and the importance that the Kremlin has tried to assign to this late December phone call, not much has changed. Russian forces still haven’t retreated from the border, we still don’t know if Putin has decided to invade or not, and we’re waiting to see if diplomacy can save the day. That phone call, for all my worrying, turned out to just be a way to keep the lines of communication open and for Putin to flex his prestige muscle. But it didn’t add much clarity or movement to a very tense situation. Thanks for nothing, Mr. Putin.