How does Putin’s announcement affect the prospects of a diplomatic solution?

“This is a high-stakes game of chicken, and Putin’s move has just raised the stakes even higher”

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2021. (photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2021.
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/POOL VIA REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Reports about a possible summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin were met with skepticism in Washington on Monday. Putin on Monday announced he will move to recognize the Ukrainian separatists of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the White House still warned that an invasion could start in a matter of hours or days.

“This is a high-stakes game of chicken, and Putin’s move has just raised the stakes even higher,” said former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren. “While in such a game there is almost always room for both sides to climb down from their maximalist demands, there’s also great room for miscalculation.

“Russia’s annexation of these areas could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough,” he said. “But just as easily, at least, it could ignite a wider conflagration. It could lead to a breakthrough because Putin is increasing the pressure on the West. He’s been doing it all along. He is raising the stakes and waiting to hear from the West if they will not include Ukraine in NATO and if they will remove NATO missiles from former Warsaw Pact countries.”

Do you think that a summit is still an option?

He answered, “I do, because [US President Joe] Biden says that as long as Putin doesn’t invade, he’ll be willing to meet, and Putin hasn’t invaded yet.

 Militants of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic take part in shooting drills at a range on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, December 14, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO) Militants of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic take part in shooting drills at a range on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, December 14, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

“While negotiations are always preferable to war, the immediate question is what would the two leaders discuss?” said William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute, a part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars located in Washington.

“Russia has put forward a series of ultimatums that it says are nonnegotiable from the start, such as no future NATO membership for Ukraine and the rollback of NATO expansion,” Pomeranz said. “Biden cannot accede to such demands without undermining the North Atlantic alliance and his own international standing. Both sides previously expressed fealty to the negotiating procedures outlined in the Minsk Protocol.

“However, if Putin recognizes the two breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk – as he suggested in today’s emergency meeting with the Security Council – it would mean that the Minsk agreement is off the table with no prospect of revival. Therefore, since trust between the two sides is at an all-time low, all signs now point to war and not more diplomacy.”

On the other hand, Zvi Magen, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former Israeli ambassador to both Russia and Ukraine, said he believes diplomacy can still work and that war can be prevented.

“Now it’s time for diplomacy,” Magen said. “Until now, we mostly saw the sides fighting over the narrative. But if they agree to meet, it means that at least one of the sides and probably both of them are willing to compromise.”

In case of an invasion, Russia is taking a risk of severe sanctions, he said.

Should the presidents meet, they are expected to discuss what Russia will receive from the list of demands they put forward, Magen said.

“So far, the US didn’t promise much,” he said. “But Russia will demand at least that Ukraine won’t join NATO and that current sanctions on Russia will be removed.”

According to Dan Arbell, a scholar in residence at American University, “The West is trying to understand whether Putin’s recognition of the Donbas is part of his end-game move or just a stage on the way to a full-scale war.”

Arbell previously served as deputy chief of mission at the Israel Embassy in Washington and has been a diplomat for more than 25 years.

He said a summit is still possible because it is aligned with Biden’s agenda to exhaust all venues of diplomacy to avoid war.

“However, the administration will have to make sure that the US will not be embarrassed by Russia during the summit or its immediate aftermath,” Arbell said. “Should they meet, no topic will be off the table. But it is still unclear what Putin is planning and what is the meaning of his recognition in the separatist regions.”

John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said: “As the Prussian King Frederick the Great once said, with only a touch of overstatement, ‘Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.’”

“President Biden has been left reaching for every other tool in the toolbox to try not only to deter Putin from attacking, but to delay him diplomatically as well in hopes that cooler heads will eventually prevail, and he’ll reconsider the cost-benefit ratio of military action,” he said.

“The administration believes the longer it can keep the Russians talking and not invading, the better – even if the prospects for de-escalation appear slim at the present time,” Hanna said. “As many have remarked, that’s also a strategy used with hostage-takers: Keep them talking so at least they don’t shoot the hostage. It’s a time-buying strategy in hopes that ‘something will come up’ in the meantime that prevents the worst from happening.

“It’s generally a strategy of the weak, but the administration is probably right to grasp at every opportunity to put off what promises to be the most dangerous armed conflict and bloodletting of innocents on the European continent since World War II.”