It is now the morning after the widely anticipated video conference tête-à-tête between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it is time to put our Kremlinology skills to work. By that I mean to say there is very little today in the public domain to provide clear answers to what may have been achieved, or to put it more brashly, who won the match of wills. We must rely on small hints that we can tweak out from mainstream media, which has, of course, been hand fed by Washington.
First, reading The New York Times and the Financial Times today we see that the bluster coming from Washington in the run-up to the contest has been deflated and something closer to the reality of U.S. leverage over Russia or lack of it is coming through. I will not go beyond these two leading newspapers of the USA and the United Kingdom, because a brief perusal of Continental papers like Le Soir in Belgium, Le Figaro in France and the Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany shows that coverage of the Biden-Putin summit is negligible. That relative disinterest in and of itself also counts as deflating the inflammatory Biden Administration bluster which came before.
As regards my two mainstream flagships, I note the subtle change in numbers. A couple of weeks ago, I read that the Russians had 250,000 troops moved south to the Ukrainian border region. A week ago, it appeared there were 150,000 but many more could be brought in. Today I read that the Russians have 70,000 troops standing by in the region adjoining the border with Ukraine.
Yesterday we read that the US had agreed with its European allies on a set of crippling economic sanctions to impose on Russia if it invaded Ukraine. Today’s NYT tells us that a Russian invasion “could end Russia’s hopes of completing the Nord Stream II pipeline to Europe.” But that has been at the top of the U.S. agenda for the last five years or more, and it is still placed in the conditional tense. The message is even more diluted in the FT this morning: “The U.S. is putting pressure on Germany to block Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as part of a package of sanctions that would be implemented in the event of Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine.”
There is hardly mention of the cut-off from SWIFT and halt to convertibility of the ruble into pounds, euros and dollars which had been in the threat list given to the press by Russia-hater in residence at the State Department, Victoria Nuland. Is it any wonder, then, that the Russian stock market this morning did not react at all to US threats of kicking Russia out of the world financial system and was in positive territory at the open.
From the brief highlights of the meeting released to the media by the Kremlin, we learn that both presidents expressed satisfaction with the meetings of their delegations over cyber security which followed from their face to face summit in Geneva in June. We also are told that some small progress was made addressing the reduction of the respective diplomatic presence in both countries to crippling levels: as a first step, the Americans are granting the Russians access to the diplomatic properties that were seized at the end of the Obama presidency and start of the Trump presidency in violation of international law. In the context of a virtual meeting set up in great haste for the ostensible purpose of bullying Russia into abandoning its alleged plans to invade Ukraine in the coming two months, these little signs of “business back to normal” put in question the depth of the crisis being addressed.
Finally, I note that today Biden has reversed course on his coziness with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before the video summit, Zelensky had been led to believe that he would hear from the American president immediately afterwards. Now, in what is clearly a humiliating put-down, Zelensky has been told to await a call from Biden on Thursday, that is after the American President has conferred with his West European allies.
However tentative all the above remarks may be, it is a safe guess that there will now be a war between Russia and Ukraine only if Kiev launches a military assault on the Russian backed rebel provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. It is now crystal clear that no Western military aid will come to save the necks of the Ukrainians when the Russians move in, as they will definitely do to save their Donbas brethren, many of whom are Russian Federation passport holders. And assuming that Zelensky has any sense of self-preservation and desire to enjoy the millions he has surely amassed during his brief time in office, he would likely be on the first private jet out to Israel or wherever, should his generals march on Donbas under instructions from the Right Sector and neo-Nazi radicals who have never been properly stripped of power.
That being said, the avoidance of war tomorrow does not mean the problem of U.S.-Ukraine-Russian relations has been solved in any way. Vladimir Putin is not one to kick the can down the road. It will be solved on his watch before 2024. But having shouted “wolf” once, as it did in the days leading up to this summit, Washington will be ever less able to rally Europe to its side in the future over the supposed Russian menace.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021