President Joe Biden’s comments on Thursday that he’d be open to diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the war in Ukraine may have been more about signaling Western solidarity and shoring up the US’s relationship with France than about entering into an imminent dialogue with Russia.
Biden made the remarks during an official state visit from French President Emmanuel Macron, whose decision to try and engage Putin in talks during the course of the invasion has been met with little success, as well as some frustration with from allies like the US.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby clarified Biden’s comments in a press briefing Friday, saying that although Biden was open to diplomacy with Putin should Russia come to the negotiating table with a reasonable position to end the war, that’s not likely to happen soon. Russia in particular has not indicated that it’s serious about engaging in peace talks; in response to Biden’s comments Thursday, Putin and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia would engage in peace talks if Ukraine would meet their list of demands, which includes recognition of territories Russia has seized in southern Ukraine.
Throughout the nearly 10 months since Russia illegally invaded Ukraine, aligning the priorities of the US and European Union nations has been a key aspect of the Western response to the war — both in terms of material support for Ukraine and enforcing sanctions to cripple the Russian economy.
That hasn’t always been easy, and Russian politicians and media try to exploit every division— whether perceived or real — within the transatlantic partnership to indicate that not only is its willingness to back Ukraine faltering, but the entire Western world order is headed toward collapse.
“Russia can exploit those disagreements, and they do. And they will,” Donald Jensen, director for Russia and Europe at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox regarding the Russian political and media sphere. “They see everything. Now sometimes, they misread things, sometimes they don’t understand certain things about the West very well, and I think they miscalculated and underestimated the unity of the West behind Ukraine. But they do react to everything, and they talk about everything.”
Biden’s comments point toward solidarity with the West
Though Kirby did clarify Biden’s comments from Thursday, they weren’t substantially different from previous positions Biden has held on the peace process with Ukraine.
“There’s one way for the war to end: the rational way,” Biden said during a joint press conference with Macron. In order for that to happen, Putin must pull out of Ukraine, Biden said, “but it appears he’s not going to do that.” The president continued, “He’s paying a very heavy price for refusing to do that, but he’s inflicting incredible, incredible carnage on the civilian population of Ukraine — bombing nurseries, hospitals, children’s homes. It’s sick what he’s doing.”
That sentiment, too, comports with Biden’s previous positions on the war, particularly in the wake of atrocities like the massacres in Bucha and Mariupol, committed by Russian troops during their occupation of those areas.
“I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war,” Biden said Thursday. “He hasn’t done that yet.” The two leaders have not spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 of this year, according to Reuters, although US government officials including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have spoken with their Russian counterparts in the intervening months.
For their part, Russian conditions for negotiations are much the same as they were in March, when it seemed as though Ukraine was willing to negotiate a settlement on Russian terms. However, Russia has lost significant territory and battlefield leverage since then as Ukraine successfully recaptured parts of Kharkiv Oblast and Kherson.
Perhaps the more surprising development was Macron’s assertion that he would not advocate for negotiations on terms unacceptable to Ukraine. Macron, who has kept open a line of communication with Putin throughout the war, received backlash from NATO allies in Eastern Europe over the summer for his comments that Russia “should not be humiliated” during the process of pursuing peace.
This time around, Jensen said, Macron’s message has shifted. “France has always wanted to have their own foreign policy profile,” he said. “But frankly a lot of people think [Macron] was humiliated by Putin and so he’s come around to a position closer to the US, even as he wants to play his own role in global politics.”
In response to a question about whether Macron and Biden had talked about pushing Ukraine to negotiate for an end to the war given the strain energy prices are expected to put on European households this winter, Macron reiterated the solidarity of Western nations against the Russian invasion and pointed to his country’s increased military, economic, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
Perhaps more importantly, Macron clearly stated that “we will never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise which will not be acceptable for them.” Furthermore, he added, “If we want a sustainable peace, we have to respect the Ukrainians to decide the moment and the conditions in which they will negotiate about their territory and their future.”
The show of solidarity with Ukraine was important, according to Nicholas Lokker, a research assistant with the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, given that the US and France are working through disagreements about the clean energy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act.
“I think there have been some concerns about the degree to which this dispute could impact the broader relationship, and potentially even cooperation on things like the response to the war in Ukraine,” he said. “This is a real issue, but at the same time, it’s not directly related to the response to the war and I think there’s a recognition that you can have individual disputes on particular policies that do not need to compromise the entire relationship.”
Keeping a channel with Russia open is important, but don’t expect peace talks soon
Despite Biden’s openness to talks with Putin, the experts Vox spoke to agreed that Russia has not made any serious move toward good-faith negotiations, and Biden himself said he didn’t expect to talk to Putin any time soon.
“The Russian position has not evolved at all, except in a more demanding way,” Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Vox. “Even though Russia has been losing on the battlefield since August, they implicitly upped their demands in September when they declared that they had annexed Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts, even though they didn’t control all of those territories. So there’s no indication I’ve seen that the Russians are prepared to moderate their position.”
In the face of those battlefield disasters, Russia has increasingly targeted civilian infrastructure, murdering civilians, damaging roads, and destroying civilian energy structures, leaving large swathes of the population in places like Kyiv, Odesa, and Kherson without light, heat, or running water. The ongoing attacks, which Russia has claimed are aimed at keeping foreign weapons out of Ukraine, have been described by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as war crimes, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
Still, some members of the transatlantic alliance have kept the phone lines to the Kremlin open — if only to admonish Putin, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did Friday. During the call, according to a tweet from the German embassy in the US, “Scholz condemned Russia’s airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and stressed Germany’s determination to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. He urged Putin to withdraw his troops.”
Chancellor Scholz had a call with President Putin. Scholz condemned Russia's airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in #Ukraine and stressed Germany's determination to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. He urged Putin to withdraw his troops. pic.twitter.com/T4vuakfMAb— German Embassy (@GermanyinUSA) December 2, 2022
Even if these lines of communication don’t amount to negotiations over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they’re still critical to mitigating misunderstanding and miscalculations on the battlefield, Pifer said. “There are those contacts that are, perhaps, useful in sending messages about, ‘Look, we want to de-escalate things, we don’t want to escalate.’ I think that’s important to avoid miscalculation,” particularly in a battlefield context in which Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons, as Putin did earlier this year.
But even with the lines of communication open, there are serious issues which Russia and the transatlantic alliance desperately need to address — and which, Jensen said, Russia is now trying to use as leverage. Planned talks around the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), as a sidebar to the COP27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh last week, were quashed when Russia attempted to tie in Ukraine negotiations.
The lack of movement on these kinds of issues, Jensen said, is a good indicator of where the US-Russia relationship is. “That’s really more reflective of where we are now than something Biden said.”