When Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet virtually on Tuesday, the two presidents will have to negotiate a history of mutual suspicion as they take on the urgent issue of a major Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine.
The key question hanging over the talks – and a subject of deep debate among analysts and political leaders – is whether Putin can actually launch a cross-border invasion, or whether he will be able to pressure Biden into guaranteeing former Soviet Ukraine. Whether or not NATO is using troops to become a launchpad.
From Russia’s harsh treatment of dissidents to the presence of ransomware hackers on Russian soil to Moscow’s support for an oppressive regime in Syria, the two have a rough list of other differences up in the air.
But the magnitude of the Russian buildup near Ukraine — the Kremlin could plan an offensive as early as 2022, that could involve 175,000 troops, according to US intelligence obtained by The Washington Post and other outlets — in Washington and across Europe Red flags have been raised.
Many analysts are skeptical that Putin will proceed with an invasion – which will inevitably prompt international condemnation and perhaps new sanctions – but at least some take a deeper view.
“Putin has raised the stakes fast. He is no longer bluffing,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultant R.Politic Center and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“He is ready to take a desperate step,” she told Agence France-Presse on Sunday.
The impending crisis could be the toughest test to date for the 78-year-old US president’s foreign policy savvy and clout.
Biden and Putin – who is expected to speak around Washington time on Tuesday afternoon – have a history together.
They first met in person in the Kremlin in 2011. Then-Vice President Biden later said he told the Russian leader, “I don’t think you have a soul”, to which Biden says, Putin responds, “We understand each other.”
They met again in 2014 in Geneva to deal with the now familiar issue of Russian military pressure on Ukraine.
And they met with Biden for the first time as president on June 16 of this year in Geneva.
Contacts have continued since then, with Putin seen as eager to pressure Biden at another in-person summit as a way to project equality on the world stage.
On Friday, Biden vowed to make it “very, very difficult” for Russia to launch an invasion, but did not say how.
Putin has warned the West and Kiev against crossing the Kremlin’s “red lines”, including making weapons in Ukraine.
Biden later replied, “I will not accept anyone’s red line.”
Some analysts said Russia, concerned about Ukraine’s growing ties with NATO, is pressing to reduce that movement.
Following Putin’s leadership, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide “security guarantees” that NATO would not come close to Russia’s border.
Stanovaya said this could be Putin’s bottom line: “Either NATO provides guarantees or Russia attacks Ukraine,” she said.
Russia has continued to deny any war intent, instead accusing the West of provocations in the Black Sea.
NATO recognized Kiev as one of the so-called “Advanced Opportunity Partners” in June 2020, potentially a step towards membership.
Former US Secretary of State for European Affairs Heather Conley said she believed Putin was willing to apply “enormous pressure” to the Ukraine standoff.
Conley, who is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he is ready for another in-person summit with Biden. And he wants to loosen Western ties with Ukraine, which he said is seen by some as “a sort of NATO aircraft carrier”.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent political analyst close to the Kremlin, said he doubts Biden and Putin will agree on anything concrete on Tuesday, but he does not expect hostilities to break down if talks fail.
“No, this is a frenzy fueled by the West,” he told AFP on Sunday. “Wars start suddenly. If it starts, it will start differently.”
Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since supported the separatist forces fighting Kiev. More than 13,000 people have died in the conflict.
What if the virtual meeting between rival leaders goes awry on Tuesday?
If Russia fails to obtain housing, Conley said, and all attempts at diplomacy fail, he means “Mr. Putin will use military means to achieve his political objective.”