Russia’s is not the only leadership that finds itself in a bind more than a week since the Ukraine war began. Leaders in the West, particularly US President Joe Biden, are struggling to find a way to resolve a crisis that has the potential of spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders into the rest of Europe.
Moscow finds itself in a corner for chiefly two reasons: Ukraine’s forces have robustly defended much of their territory against the Russian military; and western governments have imposed a range of crippling sanctions on the Russian economy in a rare show of unity.
However, the euphoria felt across Europe and North America over these early victories has been replaced, to some extent, by two concerns. One, Russian forces have made inroads into Ukraine, particularly in the south, and two, Moscow has ordered Russia’s military to put its deterrence forces – which include nuclear weapons – on “special alert”. The announcement doesn’t mean that it intends to use its nukes, but western governments have viewed it to be an escalatory step.
The situation, therefore, requires thinking outside the box on the part of the world leaders – and, given America’s position as a superpower, the only leader with the tools to bring about a shift is Mr Biden.
The Biden administration needs to understand that, by engaging in brinkmanship with Moscow, it risks pushing Russia further into a corner that could prove costly for the whole world. The objective should not be to teach its leadership a lesson, but to come up with creative ideas that may appear simple and might even give the wrong impression to the rest of the international community, yet could prevent a larger-scale war.
Any attempt on Mr Biden’s part to reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks will be an act of courage and not weakness. In fact, the US President should consider inviting Mr Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to an emergency summit that could also involve the leaders of Germany and France. Mr Biden might get critised for it, with some suggesting that this amounts to rewarding Russia for launching its war against Ukraine in the first place. There will be fears that it could further embolden Kremlin.
However, such an invitation could avert a conflict that is much more devastating and widespread than it currently is. Indeed, talks could provide the blueprint necessary to de-escalate the crisis, the off-ramp the Russian leadership may need and, most importantly, the means to pull the world back from the brink.
We no longer live in an era of “conventional” warfare. An information war is under way in Ukraine, so is a cyber-war. And there’s always the danger of their spilling into Europe and the US. But what’s more frightening is the threat of the war going nuclear – not necessarily culminating in the dropping of atom bombs but the use of nuclear warheads or ballistic missiles.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin acted responsibly when he cancelled scheduled nuclear missile tests in order to send Russia a message that it did not want to provoke Moscow or further escalate tensions. Mr Austin also explained the Biden administration’s rationale for not giving in to Kyiv’s demand that Nato set up a no-fly zone in Ukraine, as this would effectively mean the US-led western security alliance’s involvement in the war.
The danger of a European war is, of course, real because of either strategic compulsions or accidents on the ground. Moscow could also be angered if Nato member states continue provide weapons to Ukraine – particularly if they send convoys into Ukraine, rather than offloading them at, say, the border with Poland, which is a Nato member.
But the messaging from Washington is clear: Nato does not seek to engage in an armed conflict with Russia.
One way for the Biden administration to de-escalate the crisis could be to remove some of the sanctions the West recently imposed on Russia. While this alone won’t be sufficient to end the crisis, tactical steps will amount to important gestures of goodwill towards Moscow. Ultimately though, the broader settlement will have to include a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality.
This conflict began with Russia’s demand that Ukraine, once a part of the Russian empire and, along with Russia, a part of the Soviet Union, not join Nato – an anti-Soviet, Cold War-era security alliance. Perhaps a Nato guarantee to keep Ukraine out of its umbrella in perpetuity would be the necessary step towards moving it from under the Russian yoke. There needs to be an acknowledgement that Ukraine cannot and should not be used as a pawn in the broader West-Russia conflict.
This will require political maturity and strategic courage on Mr Biden’s part. It won’t be easy. But by seizing the initiative and reaching out to Moscow for a deal, the US President may be able to settle the debate about his perceived weakness on the world stage. More importantly, by nipping a potential pan-European war in the bud, he will have spared the West of a possibly catastrophic conflict.