Information provided to the press by both American and Russian sides following the 50 minute telephone conversation between presidents Putin and Biden is very meager. That has not prevented major Western media like the New York Times and Financial Times from putting out this morning normal sized articles filled mostly with background information for those readers who have been asleep for the past few weeks. The few statements about the meeting from official sources on both sides have just been repeated at face value in their articles, without any attempt at interpretation.
In what follows, I will provide precisely that: a Kremlinologist’s deciphering of what we used to call ‘the wooden language’ of diplomacy and of officialdom.
Let us begin with the remark in the FT that “the telephone call between the leaders…was arranged at Moscow’s request.” They take it no further, but it certainly bears mention that until now all contacts –phone calls and in-person or virtual summits between the two leaders – have been called at the request of the American side, which was unnerved by the build-up of 100,000 or more Russian soldiers at the Ukrainian border and assumed that an invasion was being prepared. So, I ask why did Russia take the initiative this time? And why a conversation now, just days before the official delegations from both countries meet in Geneva. I will hazard guesses.
First, from their own perspective, as revealed in statements by panelists on the 28 December “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” talk show that I published earlier today, the Russians say they are now taking the strategic initiative in relations from the Americans and setting the agenda as they see fit. I believe that Putin wanted the call to discuss Ukraine one-on-one with Biden well before the planned date of the meeting in Geneva by their negotiating teams. Knowing that the Americans intend to divert discussion from the Russian agenda of NATO retreat, that the Americans have flagged Ukraine and arms control as their preferred subjects for negotiation, Putin decided to remove at least one of these issues here and now.
Indeed, the United States media and government have for more than six weeks been beating the drum over an expected Russian invasion of Ukraine, for which the build-up of Russian forces at the border was alleged to be the preparation. The FT duly reported in this manner today in the headline of their article on the phone call yesterday: “US will respond ‘decisively’ if Russia invades Ukraine, Joe Biden warns Vladimir Putin.” But all this claptrap about “consequences” for expected Russian boots on the ground in Ukraine is only domestic PR in the USA to make Biden appear to be standing tall, to show him as a determined defender of freedom who will put Putin in his place, and to help us all forget the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer which gave Biden the image of incompetence and cowardice in foreign affairs.
What about Putin’s response to the threat of a ‘decisive’ U.S. response to an invasion. We read in the FT article the following: “Putin told Biden that sweeping sanctions would cause a ‘complete rupture’ in relations between the two countries,…adding that it would be a ‘colossal mistake that could lead to the most serious consequences.’” This same line was used by the NYT at the start of its morning report “A call between Biden and Putin.”
Neither the FT nor the NYT hazards a guess as to what those consequences of Russian counter action might be, nor do they venture to say how a ‘complete rupture’ in relations might play out. Let’s work on that now.
I believe that Putin’s counter threat of a complete rupture in relations is directed not at the USA as such but at Europe, and is intended to strip Biden of much of the impact of his proposed ‘sanctions from hell,’ as Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland called them.
Cutting off all relations with the United States does not have much importance by itself under present conditions of minimal diplomatic and other communications channels between them following waves of U.S. sanctions and expulsions of Russian diplomats, seizure of Russian diplomatic property over the past five years. As for trade, it was never very consequential between the two countries simply due to the structure of their economies. What little the U.S. has imported from Russia is chiefly in certain grades of crude oil that Gulf of Mexico refineries in the United States cannot get elsewhere since a ban on Venezuelan oil was imposed some time ago.
The threat of total cut-off of relations would be an entirely different matter for the European Union, which would surely face the same issue if it dared to impose draconian sanctions on Russia in concerted action with the United States. And Biden’s threat holds water only if the EU acts in harmony with America.
The European Union cannot possibly risk a total cutoff of relations with Russia because 30% of all gas it consumes comes from Russia, not to mention the other very extensive trade relations which make the EU Russia’s largest trading partner, and make Russia a major partner for Germany and several other key EU member states.
I would say that metaphorically speaking, Putin sank Biden’s ships with this one warning.
Now I direct attention to another tantalizing sentence in the FT article which takes us all the way back to last week, when “Putin …refused to rule out a military solution [in Ukraine] and has previously warned that he has ‘all kinds’ of options if his demands are not met.”
What could those ‘all kinds of options be’? If the FT staff in Moscow had bothered to listen to the December 28 edition of the talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ they would know what readers of my transcription of the show published earlier today now know: Russia is considering making surgical strikes against NATO military infrastructure that it deems threatening to its national security, and the targets are not necessarily in Ukraine. No invasion, no overthrow of the fascist-rabid nationalist influenced government in Kiev, just surgical strikes, such as Israel and Turkey and the United States itself have carried out in places like Syria and Iraq in the past few years with total impunity.
When I heard this voiced by Vladimir Solovyov, this was the first time such an ingenious solution came up. I had been looking elsewhere when trying to make sense of Putin’s talk of ‘military technical’ means to achieve its political objective of removing existential threats posed by NATO installations. I had assumed he meant stationing submarines and frigates armed with hypersonic missiles just off American shores or planting still more missiles in Kaliningrad and in Belarus to threaten European capitals. But how could the reality of Russian strategic superiority represented by these new weapon systems be driven home without an exercise similar to the US bombing of Hiroshima, which took place in the context of all-out war? If instead Russia uses its new precision strike weapons against, say, what is nominally an ABM base in Romania, but which the Russians consider to be in fact an offensive missile base directed at themselves, who will raise a finger? Is Romania better loved in the world, and even within the EU, than Syria or Iraq? Not really. Would that be an act of war? Hardly. But to avoid any risk, the Russians might instead begin their political military case by bombing NATO formations in Ukraine. When they bombed NATO units in Syria that were supporting terrorists, it was hushed up by NATO member states even though lives were lost. The same would likely happen in any Russian attacks in Ukraine that had collateral loss of life.
These are surely the arguments that Russia will bring to the table in its own good time to get Uncle Sam’s signature on the treaties of security that they presented to Washington on December 17th. And at that point the American political establishment will bless Biden, the peacemaker and drop all pretence at resistance.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021