President Joe Biden’s comments Thursday that he would be open to diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine may have had more to do with signaling Western solidarity and shoring up America’s relationship with France than with enter into an imminent dialogue with Russia.
Biden made the comments during an official state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, whose decision to try to open talks with Putin during the course of the invasion has met with little success, as well as some frustration from allies including the United States.
National Security Agency spokesman John Kirby clarified Biden’s comments at a news conference on Friday, saying that while Biden was open to diplomacy with Putin, if Russia comes to the negotiating table with a reasonable position to end the war, that probably won’t happen anytime soon. Russia, in particular, has not indicated that it is serious about participating in peace talks; Responding to Biden’s comments on Thursday, Putin and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would participate in peace talks if Ukraine complied with their list of demands, which includes recognition of territories Russia has seized in the southern Ukraine.
Throughout the nearly 10 months since Russia illegally invaded Ukraine, aligning the priorities of the United States and the European Union nations has been a key aspect of the Western response to the war, both in terms of material support for Ukraine as in the application of sanctions to paralyze the Russian economy. .
That hasn’t always been easy, and Russian politicians and media try to exploit all divisions, whether perceived or real, within the transatlantic partnership to indicate that not only is their willingness to back Ukraine faltering, but that the entire Western world order is heading towards collapse.
“Russia can and does exploit those disagreements. And they will,” Donald Jensen, director for Russia and Europe at the US Institute for Peace, told Vox about the Russian political and media sphere. “They see everything. Now, sometimes they misunderstand things, sometimes they don’t quite understand certain things about the West, and I think they miscalculated and underestimated the unity of the West behind Ukraine. But they react to everything and talk about everything.”
Biden’s comments point toward solidarity with the West
Although Kirby clarified Biden’s comments on Thursday, they were not materially different from previous positions Biden has held on the Ukraine peace process.
“There is one way for the war to end: the rational way,” Biden said during a joint press conference with Macron. For that to happen, Putin must withdraw from Ukraine, Biden said, “but it looks like he won’t. He is paying a heavy price for refusing to do that, but he is inflicting incredible carnage on the civilian population of Ukraine: bombing nurseries, hospitals, children’s homes. He is sick what he is doing ”.
That sentiment is also consistent with Biden’s previous positions on the war, particularly in the wake of atrocities like the massacres in Bucha and Mariupol, committed by Russian troops during the occupation of those areas.
“I am prepared to talk to Mr. Putin if there is in fact an interest in him deciding that he is looking for a way to end the war,” Biden said Thursday. “He hasn’t done that yet.” The two leaders have not spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 this year, according to Reuters, although US government officials including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have spoken. with their Russian counterparts in the intervening months.
For its part, the Russian terms for negotiations are much the same as they were in March, when it appeared that Ukraine was willing to negotiate a deal on Russian terms. However, Russia has lost significant territory and battlefield influence since then, as Ukraine successfully recaptured parts of Kharkiv and Kherson oblast.
Perhaps the most surprising development was Macron’s assertion that he would not advocate negotiations on terms unacceptable to Ukraine. Macron, who kept an open line of communication with Putin throughout the war, received backlash from NATO allies in Eastern Europe over the summer for his comments that Russia “should not be humiliated” during the search process. peace.
This time, Jensen said, Macron’s message had changed. “France has always wanted to have its own foreign policy profile,” he said, “but frankly, a lot of people think [Macron] he was humiliated by Putin, so he has come closer to the US, even as he wants to play his own role in global politics.”
Responding to a question about whether Macron and Biden had discussed pressuring Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war given the strain energy prices are expected to put on European households this winter, Macron reiterated the solidarity of the Western nations against the Russian invasion and noted his country’s increased military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Perhaps most importantly, Macron clearly stated that “we will never urge Ukrainians to make a compromise that is not acceptable to them.” In addition, “if we want a sustainable peace, we have to respect the Ukrainians to decide the moment and the conditions in which they will negotiate on their territory and their future.”
The show of solidarity with Ukraine was important, according to Nicholas Lokker, a research assistant with the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, given that the US Act.
“I think there have been some concerns about the degree to which this dispute could affect the broader relationship and potentially even cooperation on things like the response to the war in Ukraine,” he said. “This is a real problem, but at the same time, it’s not directly related to the response to the war, and I think there’s a recognition that you can have individual disputes about particular policies that don’t need to engage the entire relationship.”
It’s important to keep an open channel with Russia, but don’t expect peace talks any time soon.
Despite Biden’s openness to talks with Putin, the experts Vox spoke to agreed that Russia has made no serious move toward negotiations in good faith, and Biden himself said he did not expect to speak to Putin anytime soon. term.
“The Russian position has not evolved at all, except in a more demanding way,” Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Vox. “Although Russia has been losing on the battlefield since August, they implicitly increased their demands in September when they declared that they had annexed the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, although they did not control all of those territories. So there is no indication that he has seen that the Russians are prepared to moderate their position.”
In the face of such battlefield disasters, Russia has increasingly focused on civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, damaging roads and destroying civilian power structures, leaving large sections of the population in places like Kiev, Odessa and Kherson without power. , heating or running water. . The ongoing attacks, which Russia says are aimed at keeping foreign weapons out of Ukraine, have been described by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as war crimes, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
Still, some members of the transatlantic alliance have kept the Kremlin’s phone lines open, if only to reprimand Putin, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did on Friday. During the call, according to a tweet from the German mission to the US, “Scholz condemned Russia’s airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and highlighted Germany‘s determination to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. He urged Putin to withdraw his troops.
Chancellor Scholz had a call with President Putin. Scholz condemned Russia’s airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in #Ukraine and highlighted Germany’s determination to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. He urged Putin to withdraw troops from him. pic.twitter.com/T4vuakfMAb
— Embassy of Germany (@GermanyinUSA) December 2, 2022
Even if these lines of communication do not amount to negotiations over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they are still critical in mitigating misunderstandings and miscalculations on the battlefield, Pifer said. “There are those contacts that are perhaps useful for sending messages about, ‘Look, we want to scale things down, we don’t want to scale things up.’ I think that’s important to avoid miscalculations,” particularly in a battlefield context where Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons, as Putin did earlier this year.
But even with the lines of communication open, there are serious issues that Russia and the transatlantic alliance desperately need to address, and which, Jensen said, Russia is now trying to use as leverage. Planned talks on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as a follow-up to the COP27 conference in Cairo last week were scrapped when Russia tried to link up in negotiations with Ukraine.
The lack of movement on these kinds of issues, Jensen said, is a good indicator of where the US-Russia relationship stands. “That really reflects more where we are now than something Biden said.”
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