Timothy Ash: Disaster ahead for Ukraine in Biden-Putin meeting?
Listening to U.S President Joseph R. Biden’s rambling NATO wrap-up press conference on June 14, I have to say that things are not looking particularly auspicious for the June 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.
This is increasingly looking like a damage limitation exercise from Biden. We are still left with the question as to why on earth would Biden gift Putin a summit win with nothing in exchange? The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg summed it up well in arguing that Putin has the win in just turning up at the summit. But what is in it for Biden?
Both G7 and the NATO summits had such big and wide-ranging agendas – too big I think to have any clear-cut focus.
I doubt that the West’s adversaries will have received the clear-cut signals of unity of Western democracies and focus on the threat from autocracies that some had wanted. In any event, G7 unity was soon torn apart with an unseemly spat between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron over sausages. Nice one guys – the future of Western liberal democracy is at stake and you cannot even do the Entente Cordial gig for 48 hours without allowing it to descend into a sausage war. So much for Brexit Britain as a global leader. We cannot even sort sausage imports out with our nearest neighbor.
But on the Biden summit, I am left here asking myself who is advising Biden on Russia policy? Do they know Putin at all? Biden rolled over to Putin across the board — giving the summit, Nord Stream 2, even pulling those ships from the Black Sea deployment a few weeks back, plus also failing to offer Ukraine NATO Membership Action Plan status.
And what for? So much for negotiating with Putin from a position of strength.
It feels like the Biden team gave in to Putin’s bullying, agreeing to this summit as they were trying to buy time – to get their team fully in place, avoid having to face up to an immediate crisis in Ukraine which seemed likely a few weeks back, to try and meet and rally Western allies against the perceived bigger threat from China, and to try and get COVID-19 more firmly under control.
The strategy, if there is one, with Putin, is to buy time, and maybe for places like Ukraine that works – it gives the Ukrainians more time to prepare their defenSes. But it does not imply strength in dealing with Putin. The risk is that Putin takes all these concessions, and draws the conclusion that bad actions pay, so he will continue in the same way.
But then the insult to the Ukrainians, telling them no NATO MAP status until they get to grips with corruption at home. First, there is plenty of corruption in Western democracies, look at all those old European politicians being signed up by Russian state-owned enterprises. Second, how many other EE NATO members were told to clean up on corruption before being admitted – Bulgaria, Romania, Montenegro, N Macedonia? Not many, actually none.
For the Ukrainians they must be feeling really disrespected now – their contribution to the defense of Western liberal democracy has already been paid in blood (close to 14,000 dead in the war with Russia), territory (Crimea and parts of the Donbas) and treasure, having to spend 7% of GDP on defense and maintain a huge army to prevent invasion from the east).
The fight against corruption is ongoing and is an uphill battle for sure. It is mega-hard. But the danger from Biden’s comments is that some in the Ukrainian administration will say what the hell, the Biden team just doesn’t understand Ukraine, and why risk domestic political instability in fighting the rearguard action against corruption when the US really does not have our backs against Russia, as reflected in the forked tongue comments about the NATO MAP.
Biden did not have to specifically link it to corruption. People understand the political challenges of NATO membership in Ukraine. Corruption is now being used as an excuse not to grant Ukraine NATO MAP status.
The danger also now is that if Putin knows that Ukraine is being judged by its fight against corruption that it will deploy more financial resources to corrupt Ukraine from within. And Biden’s comments also probably risk the IMF program now – as if NATO membership is being benchmarked against the fight against corruption, why is the IMF program so high on anti-corruption conditionality, as Zelensky pointed out yesterday.
The danger for the West is that Zelensky responds to Biden with, “screw you guys, if you constantly trap us in shifting sands, we will just get on and do our own thing, which means fighting the battles we think we can win, and that might not be the fight against corruption, so it might mean waving goodbye to the IMF.”