Politics 22 November 2021

Geopolitical tensions rise ahead of Putin-Biden talks

From Ukraine to Belarus, tension between Russia and the West rose rapidly last week. Is this really the prelude to a military conflict, or is it all just saber-rattling ahead of an end-of-year encounter between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden?

  • White House spokesperson Jen Psaki did not rule out the prospect of further talks between Putin and Biden when questioned by reporters Thursday. And, earlier that day, Russian president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov admitted there could be online talks before the end of the year. Newspaper Kommersant first wrote about a possible summit earlier this month, suggesting the two leaders could talk online before the New Year and meet in person early in 2022.
  • According to Peskov, the topic of a meeting between the Kremlin and the White House would be the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the situation in Ukraine. Western media has for weeks reported that Russia is moving military personnel and equipment to the border with Ukraine. An article in The Washington Post, for example, highlighted social media posts showing military trains and convoys carrying equipment, including tanks and missiles. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, described these reports of a military build-up on the Ukrainian border as “an information salvo” fired by U.S. media.
  • News agency Bloomberg last week reported that Washington was warning its European allies that Moscow is considering an invasion of Ukraine. The next day, Bloomberg published another article suggesting Moscow is not seriously considering a military option — just wishing to indicate it would use force if necessary. The agency’s sources, including some close to the Kremlin, explained that Russia wanted to make it clear that any further Western efforts to supply weapons to Ukraine, or expand NATO’s military presence, would cross a red line. Putin himself referred to ‘red lines’ Thursday, claiming the West does not take Russia’s warnings seriously enough.
  • Ukraine was not the only Russian neighbor to dominate the headlines. For the second time in three days, Putin spoke Friday with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko about the migrants on Belarus’ borders with the European Union. Both parties expressed serious concerns about the “unacceptable, brutal actions of Polish border guards”. However, Lukashenko also told Putin about a telephone conversation Wednesday with acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This was Lukashenko’s second discussion in two days with Merkel, after which Minsk said that representatives would be appointed to start talks aimed at resolving the crisis. The number of migrants at the border has since fallen.
  • The almost completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was also back in the news this week when Germany, which has worked hard to complete the project, announced it was suspending the necessary certification. This could delay the full operation of Nord Stream 2 until the middle of 2022. Some experts have argued that the importance of Nord Stream 2 to Putin outweighs that of any sort of speculative military venture in Eastern Europe.

Why the world should care: It’s unlikely all these issues could be solved as part of a triumphant summit between Putin and Biden. However, recent tension between Russia and the West is perhaps best understood as jostling for position ahead of such an encounter.