President Joe Biden held a rare video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday as tensions mount between Russia and neighboring Ukraine.
For months now, Russia has built up troops on its border with Ukraine, sparking fears in the international community that the former Soviet superpower intends to invade. Satellite images reported by Insider in November showed Russian personnel and equipment including tanks, artillery, and armored troop carriers deployed to the Pogonovo training area and Yelnya in Russia and Novoozernoye in Crimea.
A recent U.S. intelligence estimate first reported by the Washington Post found that Moscow is planning a multi-front offensive against Ukraine as soon as early next year involving up to 175,000 troops. Russia has demanded that the U.S. guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO and that the military alliance further refrain from certain military activities in and around Ukrainian territory.
Moscow has denied having plans to invade, despite having the clear capability to do so.
Though few analysts in either the West or the East believed a breakthrough would happen in the talks, Biden was reportedly ready to attempt to dissuade Putin from invading. The president was expected to threaten Russia with various sanctions and other punishing economic actions should it go through with any plans to attack Ukraine. U.S. intelligence believes that Putin has not made up his mind to launch a military offensive, and Biden was reportedly set to tell him the U.S. is prepared to take “substantive economic countermeasures” that will inflict “significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy” should an invasion happen, a senior administration official told reporters Monday.
The two world leaders spoke for about two hours, beginning at 10:07 a.m. ET and ending at 12:08 p.m. ET, the White House said.
Is Russia about to go to war?
There are good reasons to hope for peace and good reasons to believe Russia means war.
The troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders is not unprecedented. Russia sent roughly 100,000 troops there last April as part of a military exercise before pulling those troops back and announcing that they had “demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country.” Military leaders and Western analysts interpreted Russia’s actions at the time as saber-rattling.
It may be the case that Russia simply wants to bring the U.S. to the table to make demands. After April’s military exercise, Biden met with Putin in person for a summit in Geneva last June. Since then their last publicly known conversation was in July.
Russia has previously complained about “aggression” from Western countries because of U.S. and NATO naval patrols in the Black Sea and U.S. and British soldiers being present in Ukraine on training missions. Putin said last week that during Tuesday’s meeting he would ask Biden for specific agreements that would prohibit NATO from expanding eastward or deploying weapons near Russia’s borders.
But Biden is not likely to agree to Russia’s demands that NATO must not admit Ukraine to the alliance. And Ukraine’s desire to build stronger ties with the West may be what ultimately provokes Russia to act.
Ukraine is at the center of a geopolitical rivalry between the East and the West. The nation was the second-most populous and powerful of the 15 communist states that made up the Soviet Union, with important agricultural, industrial, and military resources. But it has deep ties to Russia that go back all the way to the Middle Ages — Russia traces its founding to the Ukrainian city of Kyiv.
The country itself is divided. Its western half has a more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking population that favors greater relations with Western Europe. But a largely Russian-speaking population in the east wants closer ties with Russia. There is ongoing violent conflict in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are fighting against the pro-Western government.
Russia would like to see Ukraine come under its control once again. Putin once famously said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He seeks to restore Russia to the perceived greatness of the Soviet Union as a superpower, after decades of humiliation following the collapse of the union.
In 2014, under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula that was in the eastern region of Ukraine, becoming the first European state to annex the territory of another sovereign state since World War II.
Russia could attempt to take more territory from Ukraine under the same pretext, especially if it views the pro-Western government’s desire to join NATO as a national security threat. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told CNN that there will be a “really bloody massacre” should Putin invade, said the West must draw a red line in Ukraine, and warned that provoking Russia “will not work.”
Reznikov stressed that an invasion would have “disastrous” consequences for the rest of Europe, estimating that as many as 4 to 5 million Ukrainians could become refugees. He also emphasized that Ukraine is a major producer of food for Europe and Africa and that war would disrupt production of those supplies.
What remains unclear is whether the U.S. and the rest of the West are prepared to impose steep costs on Russia for taking such action — although the West previously demonstrated an unwillingness to fight Russia over Crimea.
What would war between Russia and Ukraine mean for me?
The United States’ interests in Ukraine are to ensure that the country is stable and sovereign, to act as a buffer against Russia and discourage Putin from taking further military action against other European states.
Before the Russian annexation of Crimea, the U.S. provided Ukraine with an average of more than $200 million in foreign aid per year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. After Russia’s aggressive action in 2014, Washington bolstered aid to Kyiv to more than $600 million annually. The U.S. also provides Ukraine with military training, weapons, and equipment, and NATO allies hold joint military exercises with Ukrainian forces each year.
The U.S. does not recognize Russia’s claims to Crimea and has imposed economic sanctions on Russia that will not be lifted until control of the peninsula is returned to Ukraine.
Ukraine wishes to join NATO. In 2020, the country became one of six enhanced opportunity partners, a special status for close NATO allies. But it is not an official NATO ally.
War between Russia and Ukraine would test U.S. and NATO commitments. Biden’s administration has already made clear there will be economic consequences for Russia’s action. And Congress and other European states would almost certainly approve more foreign aid for Ukraine in the event of war, which could mean additional unfunded government spending.
But that is likely to be the extent of the Western response. It is highly improbable that military intervention from the U.S. or any other state on behalf of Ukraine is politically feasible, or even desired. The U.S. has stated its goal of helping Ukraine defend its “sovereign territory,” but military action is not on the table. American troops will not be deployed to fight the Russians any time soon.
If war does break out, it could lead to further disruptions in global energy markets, as Ukraine is a major producer of oil and gas. And if Ukraine’s defense minister’s predictions about refugees come to fruition, the U.S. may agree to accept some Ukrainian refugees.
President Biden faces the daunting task of balance. He must put enough pressure on Russia to maintain U.S. commitments to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence while avoiding making a promise or threat the U.S. will ultimately not be able to deliver. If he fails, the U.S. will look weaker, America’s enemies may be emboldened to take further aggressive action, and potential allies throughout the world would be sent a signal that the United States cannot back up its promises.