Biden's Optimal Strategy Against Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a news conference today
Pittsburgh / December 23, 2021
Earlier today, Vladimir Putin said the US and Russia will have bilateral talks in January on Ukraine (link). I'm not convinced Joe Biden is using the optimal strategy to counter Putin.
First, there is a downside to entering into bilateral conversations with Russia. It is worth following Russian activist Garry Kasparov on Twitter to learn more on this. Kasparov is a former chess grandmaster and one of the smartest people alive. He is a vocal critic of Putin. Kasparov said on Twitter today that if the US enters into bilateral conversations, that "rewards" a dictator's aggression and Putin will escalate again to trigger conversations where he will make aggressive demands (link).
In this position, agreeing to a conversation in January creates time for the US to prepare military pieces to defend Ukraine's territory. So it might be fine on balance to agree to bilateral talks.
The US's core goal in this dynamic is to protect the Zelensky government's control over Ukraine's territory. Zelensky is the legitimately elected leader of a democracy. He campaigned on a platform to orient towards the West. A majority of Ukrainian people want to tie their future to Western institutions. Russian-backed separatists now control Donbas, the eastern border region. The US should not allow Russian-backed forces to take more territory inside Ukraine.
Second, Putin wants NATO to restrict all military deployments to members that joined before 1997. I'm sympathetic to Putin's mindset and the collapse of the Soviet Union was tragic. Putin feels surrounded and he does not want Russia to be in a vulnerable position forever.
But I ask Putin -- what about the views of the people who live in former Soviet controlled territory? In my understanding, the people of Poland are happy they joined NATO and value that NATO guarantees their territorial integrity. Russia lost the Cold War. There are consequences to losing war.
As part of a "deal", perhaps the US should agree not to admit Ukraine into NATO but not change its positions on the location of military pieces in other NATO countries. If the US starts removing military equipment from all post-1997 NATO countries, Poland will not see the point of NATO membership.
Third, Joe Biden should re-assess his position on Nord Stream 2. There is a great article in today's Guardian on this (link). In contrast to Trump, Biden simplified the path to completion of the pipeline. Biden wants to give Germany what it wants so that Germany will align more closely with US foreign policy towards China. Biden is correct to rank China as the highest priority. But Germany is an independent player and will make it own decisions on strategy vis-a-vis China. For example, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment does not align with US thinking.
If Nord Stream 2 is completed, Russia will have more leverage over Germany. By extension, Russian will have more leverage over EU policy. We will start to see more divergences between EU and NATO policy on any issue that involves Russia. Biden should re-consider whether the completion of Nord Stream 2 is a good idea.