Biden’s summit with Putin is a good start
On Wednesday in Geneva, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed their first summit was “constructive” and should lead to more stable relations between the U.S. and Russia. The issue of Ukraine, however, holds the most promise for creating that stability — or for undermining it.
In short, getting Ukraine wrong could one day lead to a catastrophic and wholly unnecessary war.
The summit was never intended to produce any breakthrough agreements but to lay the foundation for improving relations between the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers and largely succeeded at that modest goal. Both nations agreed to return their ambassadors to each embassy (after both the Russian and American ambassadors withdrew late last year). They agreed to work constructively with each other on cybersecurity, on counterterrorism issues in Afghanistan, and on the peaceful development of the Arctic.
Whether any of those areas of discussion later produce any diplomatic fruit is far from certain, and in the best of cases will only come after considerable give-and-take negotiations, likely taking years. But the path is the right one because it serves American interests. In the press conference that followed the summit, Biden was asked if he could trust Putin to follow through on his commitments.
Foreign policy under his administration, the president said, would be formed based on “self-interests and a verification of self-interests,” not trust in the word of any foreign leader. Given that Russia is the only nation on the planet with a nuclear stockpile large enough to destroy our country, it is to our benefit to prioritize American interests above mere preferences in the policies we pursue.
Promoting human rights is an important value in America, for example, but it would be harmful to American interests to press a human rights issue to the point that we sacrifice a core interest for our people. There are a number of outstanding issues between Washington and Moscow that have direct implications for our security and ability to prosper economically and should be placed high in the priority list.
America has an interest in discussing new or revised nuclear arms control agreements, especially a follow-up to the New START agreement, recently extended through early 2026. Russia has been accused of many cyber crimes against America and those specific allegations need to be addressed. It is in the interests of both countries, however, to work cooperatively on fighting cybercrime globally — as well as setting ground rules for how cyber will be conducted, much like the laws of warfare govern the conduct of war.
While it is important to maintain open dialogue on issues such as human rights, cybercrime and development of arms control agreements, perhaps the area that carries the greatest potential for transitioning from a problem to a crisis is the issue of Ukraine. In 2018, Putin warned that if Ukraine became a member of NATO, Russia, “will respond appropriately to such aggressive steps, which pose a direct threat to Russia.”
At the NATO summit last week in Brussels, the alliance reiterated “the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that such an offer wasn’t imminent, but the intent remains on the table.
Giving the best indication yet of the degree to which Russia views the threat of NATO expansion to their border with Ukraine, last April Putin ordered over 100,000 combat troops into the region opposite the Ukrainian border in a show of force that demonstrated the capacity for Russian troops to swamp Ukraine if it makes good on its attempt to join NATO. Many of those troops and their equipment were never withdrawn; they remain in a position to launch a short-notice attack.
Many in Washington argue Ukraine should be added to NATO in the near-term, along with the Article V guarantees that come with it. That would be a major mistake for the United States. Russia has already used force to prevent NATO’s expansion to its border in Georgia and could do so even more forcefully in Ukraine. Extending Article V guarantees to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, risks turning a border crisis between two Eastern European states into a potentially existential battle involving America.
The hard, realistic truth is that Ukraine and Russia live next door to one another and upwards of 13,000 people have already died in fighting since 2014. If the war continues smoldering another decade, if it ends with implementation of the Minsk Agreement — or if it explodes into large-scale war — the issue will largely remain contained to the two states, with little impact on American physical security or economic prosperity. The only way we could lose in any of those scenarios would be if we injected ourselves into the fighting and made Ukraine’s problems our problems.
Biden should never put America or our Armed Forces in a position where our troops or our people could get needlessly drawn into a local conflict thousands of miles away. We would have nothing to gain by getting involved in that fight and everything to lose. Biden had a successful first meeting with Putin. Let’s hope he builds on that success and resists the temptation to get drawn into a lose-lose fight.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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