Given the circumstances, Joe Biden’s hastily arranged virtual summit with Vladimir Putin on 7 December went as well as it was ever going to.
With 175,000 Russian troops reportedly massed on the Ukrainian border and fears of war spreading throughout Western capitals, the US president explained to his Russian counterpart which ruinous sanctions, including new restrictions on Russian banks and sovereign debt, would result from an attack across the border. Putin, in turn, requested a guarantee that Nato would not expand eastwards, and would halt military cooperation with Ukraine. Biden, naturally, declined.
Both sides, banking perhaps on a modest improvement in relations since the presidential summit in Geneva in June, committed to buying each other time. Discussions are set to continue on the junior level, and hostilities in Ukraine seem to have been postponed, if not shelved.
For both sides, however, the problem remains that as far as Ukraine is concerned, their goals are largely unachievable, and the wider problem irresolvable.
The US, for all that it would like to ignore Russia and focus on the challenges it sees as more pressing such as climate change and China, cannot match the Kremlin’s intense, emotionally charged interest in Ukraine.
Washington cannot possibly persuade Putin – a man who earlier this year took the time to pen a nearly 7,000-word essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukraine” – that the fate of Ukraine is either unimportant, or none of Russia’s business. As the analyst Kadri Liik recently wrote, the vehemence of Putin’s “passionate view that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people” is unusual even among the Russian elite. For the foreseeable future, Russia has a leader who cares far too much – and far more than the US – ever to let the Ukrainian question slide.
Neither, however, can Washington give Putin what he wants. An explicit ruling-out of Nato membership would go against the stated preference of a healthy majority of Ukrainians. Ukrainian admission to the alliance remains a fantastical prospect – it’s been off the table, by common consent, since 2008. Yet Washington, which has been rhetorically, financially and to some extent militarily committed to its informal partnership with Ukraine for nearly a decade now, cannot quite bring itself to say so.
Even so, Putin’s desired resolution is no more achievable than Biden’s. For all that the Russian president believes that the division between Russia and Ukraine is an artifice, conjured up by Bolshevik mapmakers, he himself has done a great deal to ensure the division is now more real than ever before.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014, quite apart from rallying Ukrainians around a specifically anti-Russian vision of independence, removed over six million overwhelmingly pro-Russian voters in Crimea and the Donbas from the Ukrainian electoral register. Though Russophile politics are by no means dead in Ukraine, it is now exponentially more difficult for a pro-Moscow party to win a national election. That probably leaves Putin’s dream of a stably pro-Russian Ukraine dead in the water.
Though the mutual US-Russia agreement that war should be avoided and the Ukrainian can kicked down the road can only be a good thing, there is no lasting solution to the problem. A full-scale war in Ukraine was and remains unlikely; though Putin might be flexing his military muscle, many believe he doesn’t actually intend to follow through with an invasion. But tensions will continue to ebb and flow as long as Russia and the US remain committed to unachievable goals. For as long as they continue, the risk – however remote – that one side or the other might blunder into war cannot be ruled out.
[See also: Why the world needs to stop saying “hybrid war”]