While the world has been kept guessing over what transpired at Tuesday’s Biden-Putin video conference, there is little doubt that the United States of America is preparing “robust responses” over fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
President Biden has expressed deep concern over the Russian troop build-up, even threatening “strong economic and other measures”, going by Washington’s version. Russia has, however, claimed that it will not attack the former Soviet satellite. It is fervently to be hoped that the events of 2014 will not be repeated.
The Kremlin has accused the government in Kiev, the Ukranian capital, of provocation, and sought guarantees against eastward Nato expansion and deployment of offensive weapons; the US has maintained that security arrangements are for Ukraine to decide. Video footage of the opening moments showed friendly greetings between the leaders. The talks then
continued behind closed doors, lasting about two hours. For all the exchange of diplomatic courtesies, the US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, said after the video exchange that Washington was preparing specific robust responses in the weeks ahead, if they were required.
“Things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” he said, referring to Western responses to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “There was a lot of give and take, there was no fingerwagging, but the President was crystal clear where the United States stands on all of these issues.”
The measures included economic sanctions and other actions such as additional troop deployments to Nato allies in the region and defence material for Ukraine. He refused to spell out the economic measures, saying the US would prefer to communicate them directly to the Russians. He did mention though that Nord Stream 2, a new pipeline to Germany which is not yet in operation, provided “leverage” for the US and its allies. “If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” he said. Earlier reports had said that US officials had reached agreement with Germany to shut down the pipeline in the event of an invasion.
Other possible measures include restrictions on Russia’s banks converting roubles into foreign currencies, or even disconnecting Russia from the Swift global financial payment system. While Russia has military options open to it, including an invasion of eastern Ukraine, President Putin’s game seems to be to incrementally raise the stakes and thus test the resolve of Western nations.
His calculation may be that the America and its European allies may not always be on the same page, and he may not be entirely off the mark. Certainly, President Biden was careful to speak on conference call to leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Italy before and after his interaction with the Russian leader. While the Kremlin has denied it plans to invade Ukraine, it has been careful to state what its red lines are. Europe’s fate will hinge on answers to two questions. Will Russia cross the line and if it does will Nato respond in equal measure?