Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Biden and Putin talk, but about what?

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Although it is stating the obvious, Russia has been at war with Ukraine since 2014.

The recent video summit between president Biden and Putin as a result of Russia’s large military buildup at Ukraine’s border was once again a reaction to a potential threat of further invasion. In reporting on the summit, there was no indication that any progress was made in dealing with the details of Russia’s original invasion of Ukraine in direct violation and spirit of international law.

For Putin, this was a momentary tactical achievement. It thrust Russia’s interests once again to the forefront of international discussion on his terms, and furthermore, forced the United States to acquiesce to his desire to discuss Ukraine in a head-to-head scenario.

It also proved that just a “show” of a military threat could illicit a reaction from Western competitors. And so, the discussion was not about dealing and attempting to resolve the fundamentals of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine 8 years ago, but on issues that act as a distraction from negotiating the original transgressions for the conflict. His maneuver proved that in the issue regarding Ukraine, he is not only allowed to control the agenda, but is also allowed to frame the issue to his advantage.

The West is always reacting to Russia rather than forcing and focusing on the issues that would be both in the national interests of Ukraine and the Western democracies. Those interests are based on seeing the removal of Russia’s invading forces from the Lugansk and Donetsk regions and the return of Crimea.

In both general and specific terms, it is to reestablish the Ukrainian government’s autonomy of its internationally recognized lands and borders and establish an order in the region based in accordance with the principles of international rule of law. This focus should always be paramount in any discussion with Russia. It is not to respond to any minutiae, however dire, which would force deviation from this strategic objective.

Ukrainian military forces near the Maiorske checkpoint in the country’s war torn eastern Donbass region.

Empires such as Russia and China should also be added to the list, always rely on and exploit the passage of time over its democratic adversaries on the assumption that democratic memories are short, while being subject to impatience as a result of democratic presidential terms and the inherent desire to solve an issue. Empires know how to wait to get what they want, democracies are restless because they are formulated to solve one issue and then move on to another. Authoritarians are only limited by the timing of their death.

In any search for an agreement where there is a dispute, it is imperative that the parties find a mutual language, and an agreed-to framework, for which to resolve their dispute. In the case of Ukraine, an adequate formula has not been found. The Minsk Agreement is not the framework. It’s time to move on.

The issue into which Ukraine has been thrust should be clear: the respect of its sovereignty and independence and the willingness to assuage Russia’s security interest.

To date, and in the present, one way in which Putin has succeeded was to force the West to respond to military threats, making that the ‘threat’ the issue, rather than have the focus being the dealing with the issue of his illegal invasion of Ukraine and the occupation of 7% of its land, including Crimea.

Putin’s recent tactical actions both illustrates and reveals his greater strategy, that being to ensure the continuation of a “frozen conflict” in Eastern Ukraine and to make Russian occupation of Crimea a fait accompli. A strategy that would ensure Ukraine’s stated goal of joining NATO from being realized. But in addition, it is to ensure that Ukraine remains divided both politically and socially, as well as weaken its resolve to attract Western foreign investment while destabilizing the country economically.

Putin’s strategy is to hinder, if not to totally stop the integration of Ukraine into the democratic world and free-market sphere, as well as prevent Ukraine’s consolidation into rules-based Western institutions. As Ukraine gravitates to its rightful place within the family of the democratic West, it expresses its resolve in rejecting Russia’s sphere of influence and the authoritarianism of Putin.

In defining its national narrative, Ukraine must articulate, both to Russia and its western partners that its uncompromising quest, as a nation and as a people’s, is to proceed along a path to freedom. To grow in maturity to that of a sovereign and independent European nation that cannot succumb to the geopolitical interests of other nations, but to ensure that it is the main determiner of its national fate.

President Biden clearly articulated his will to act in a tough and clear manner of the ramifications if Russia would invade Ukraine on yet another front. He reminded Putin that further sanctioning would occur and that the consequences for Russia would be devastating. Sanctions, he said, would be expanded beyond individuals. That may be well and good, but it must be remembered, he is threatening a country that survived the devastation of Stalingrad and which has not been forgotten. Russians are a suffering people, and furthermore, how would one judge the efficacy of severe economic sanctions on a people whose leadership doesn’t really care about them?

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu (far right) has been accused by Ukrainian authorities of helping to mastermind the creation of armed pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine.

President Obama made two fateful mistakes whose lessons for Biden have not been lost.  The first being the “drawing a line in the sand” in Syria and not following through, thus allowing for Putin to invade Ukraine in the first place. The second being, not imposing even greater sanctions when Russia disregarded his threat and went ahead with its invasion of Ukraine.

The summit, when being summarized, said that Putin should expect severe sanctions that were being discussed, but not implemented 8 years ago. It could well be argued that had those types of sanctions been then imposed, the world may have not come to this point and that close to 15,000 Ukrainians would not be dead and almost 1.6 million people would not have been displaced internally.

However, in the reporting on Russia’s response to the talks, one major aspect was not adequately reported on in Western media. That being that Putin asked for a written guarantee that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO. It is unfortunate that this issue did not have greater prominence because, for Putin, this is his greatest strategic interest and objective. Putin does not want Ukraine’s security to be guaranteed by the NATO alliance.

In dealing with Putin, the West must always focus and frame their discussions with Putin not only being aware of his long-term strategic objectives, but to ensure the uncompromised sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. This means that Putin must leave Ukraine in accordance with international law.

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