There was a moment of panic this week when a missile landed in Poland, killing two people. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was a Russian missile, but this notion was challenged by US President Joe Biden and other Nato leaders who said the evidence indicated it was an Ukrainian air defence missile intended to shoot down one of about 100 cruise missiles Russia had launched against Ukrainian cities.
The western prudence was not the result of a change in attitude towards Moscow or its war against Ukraine. It was more a reflection of caution against slipping into a possible third world war.
In truth, Nato member Poland inadvertently being drawn into the Ukraine war is an accident waiting to happen, or in the future could be an intended accident unless the conflict is contained or ended. A cold winter is coming, Russia's bombardment campaign is ongoing, and the risk of nuclear war stands. This episode could be a useful opportunity for leaders to consider the options available to them in light of developments on the battlefield.
Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, again appealed to Kyiv to use its military advantage to begin peace talks with Moscow. Gen Milley’s view is that completely dislodging Russian forces from Ukraine will not be easily attainable for Mr Zelenskyy, given Moscow’s determination to maintain control of Crimea.
Mr Biden was reportedly upset this week by Mr Zelenskyy’s conduct. To some, the latter had prematurely accused Moscow of striking Poland to mobilise more support for his country. This, while the G20 summit in Bali was going on.
The Kremlin praised Mr Biden's “measured” response, signalling its readiness for negotiations to end the war, even if just to test the waters. Mr Biden and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had previously said it was up to Ukraine to decide whether it was ready for talks. Implicit in this message was an appeal to Kyiv to negotiate. At the same time, Washington realises that the Kremlin won’t accept a deal to reverse its annexation of Ukrainian territories, and is aware that Russian President Vladimir views peace talks as a sign of defeat for his government.
All this means that the worst is yet to come. There are also no guarantees that a Russia-Nato war, as a result of a calculated error or an accident, can be contained.
However, ideas are being exchanged behind the scenes in the concerned capitals, including to distinguish between a ceasefire and a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. A peace treaty requires making a deal on the disputed territories, which seems impossible right now.
“This is a conflict between two constitutions – not between two presidents,” one expert told me, referring to the notion that both countries recognise the territories in question to be theirs. So, as another expert in the know put it, negotiations should instead focus on "security principles and guarantees for the two countries and finding creative formulas that bypass the issue of territories”.
It is believed that steps are being taken that could lead to negotiations – not between the leaders of the two countries but at a lower level – focused on affirming Ukraine's de jure ownership of the territories while acknowledging they are under Russian administration.
I am given to understand that Germany and France are pushing for a Christmas ceasefire between December 20 and January 15, which has Kyiv's implicit approval despite its public insistence on the 10 points it put forward to the G20 summit by way of a roadmap towards negotiations.
There are voices in Ukraine encouraging the leadership to accept a ceasefire, because of the devastation. Kyiv expects up to 50 per cent of the country’s infrastructure will be destroyed if the Russian bombardment continues at its current pace.
On the other hand, accepting a ceasefire would be difficult for the Kremlin, especially as some in the military would see this as a repetition of the Minsk agreements. Eventually, however, accepting a ceasefire would be a political decision that would have to be made by Mr Putin.
Some world powers oppose Nato’s push to drive Russia out of Europe, inflict a crushing defeat on Moscow, and perhaps even remove Mr Putin from power. At the Bali summit, it was clear that China, India and Indonesia had reservations about Nato’s conduct. It’s promising, therefore, that Mr Biden's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping produced a consensus and a shared message to Moscow that nuclear threats are unacceptable.
An evident feature of their meeting was the two leaders' careful navigation of issues and a determination to avoid confrontation. They clung to their traditional, divergent positions on several issues, from Taiwan to the economy to their rivalry on strategic dominance. But they avoided using a tone of escalation, defiance and obstruction. Mr Biden affirmed he did not believe the US and China were in a new cold war. The two presidents also signalled a readiness for dialogue to resolve differences.
Their meeting was, in that sense, reassuring.
The Bali summit was an overall success for Mr Biden, who emerged as a serious, composed leader while handling a major crisis. He did not make hasty decisions following the strike inside Poland, nor did he attempt to outmanoeuvre Mr Xi. He might, therefore, have passed important foreign policy tests.
By contrast, his predecessor, Donald Trump, is fighting a domestic battle imposed on him by the unfavourable outcome of the midterm elections that revealed a structural weakness that could affect his 2024 presidential run. Mr Trump did not tackle foreign policy during his announcement to run, except to criticise the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan last year. Mr Trump linked the restoration of American "greatness” to his desired return to the White House, but he did not put forward a programme of global leadership as had been anticipated.
The midterm elections ended up thinning out extremists from both the Democratic and Republican camps. The message from American voters was that they need pragmatism and wisdom during a difficult time for the world at large.
Pragmatism and wisdom were indeed on display last week, in managing a number of the world’s pressing issues. But the powers that be will appreciate that is really no alternative to a strategic resolution of unconstrained wars and unpredictable escalations. There is no time to lose.