THEhe two heads of state began a high-risk discussion on Tuesday, December 7 at 3:07 p.m. GMT. Vladimir Poutine, who wants to mark his strategic “red lines”, faces Joe Biden, who wants to avoid a military escalation in Ukraine. The meeting began with an exchange of courtesies, broadcast by Russian television.
“It’s good to see you again,” said Joe Biden, saying he was hoping to meet his counterpart “in person” next time. “I greet you, Mr. President”, said Vladimir Poutine, smiling, seated at a long table, in front of a screen on which appeared his counterpart. The Russian president is in his residence in Sochi, a seaside resort by the Black Sea.
The US president is participating in the conversation from the Situation Room of the White House, closed to journalists. Washington, for its part, did not broadcast images. The choice by the Americans of this ultra-secure room, from which the American executive steers sensitive military interventions, reveals the high degree of tension in Washington. At the same time as this interview, Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to “start work and a process of appeasement” with Moscow.
“Russia never intended to attack”
The hope of the American president to establish a “stable” and “predictable” relationship with Russia, expressed in June during a summit in person between the two men in Geneva, seems to have lived, at least for the moment. Washington, NATO and Kiev accuse Moscow of massing troops on the border with Ukraine in order to attack the country. The scenario recalls 2014 and the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, then the outbreak in eastern Ukraine of an armed conflict which left more than 13,000 dead.
The Kremlin denies any plans for an invasion. And Moscow accuses Washington of neglecting its own concerns: the increased activity of NATO countries in the Black Sea, the Ukrainian desire to join the Atlantic alliance and Kiev’s ambition to arm itself with the West. “Russia never intended to attack anyone, but we have red lines,” Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, assured Monday.
Many observers in Europe and the United States believe that Vladimir Putin is bluffing with the deployment of forces on Ukraine’s borders, but few completely dismiss the possibility of an attack. If Moscow were to take action, a senior White House official warned that the United States would “respond favorably” to a demand for an increased American military presence in Eastern Europe and give more support to the Ukrainian army.
Washington is also brandishing the threat of economic sanctions against the Russian regime. And ensures that they would be more painful than those which have piled up without much effect on Russia since 2014. “We know that the American side has an addiction to sanctions,” the Kremlin spokesman said ironically on Tuesday. Joe Biden, who described Vladimir Poutine as a “killer”, must skilfully manage the Ukrainian crisis, he who has already irritated the traditional allies of the United States with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The US president took care to discuss Monday with European leaders, including those of France and Germany, to insist on their common “determination” to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. He will also report on his meeting with Vladimir Poutine to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been annoyed in recent months by the Westerners’ refusal to accelerate Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
An expected confrontation
The holding of this virtual Biden-Putin summit is already a success for Russia, which claims to be an unavoidable geopolitical power and thus at least temporarily tears the American president away from his major strategic priority, rivalry with China. It had been a few weeks since the Kremlin called for a face-to-face meeting between the two presidents.
Beyond Ukraine, strategic stability and nuclear arms control, hacking and cybersecurity, and even Iran’s nuclear power are all subjects likely to be debated on Tuesday. “It is clear that when two presidents go towards dialogue, it is because they want to discuss the problems and do not aim at an impasse,” Dmitry Peskov noted. “But we should not expect immediate breakthroughs,” he warned.