President Joe Biden will surely see updated imagery of those military vehicles and snowy parking tracks before his video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
It’s Putin’s move. Russia can invade Ukraine “on short order should he so decide,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Dec. 1.
Don’t forget over 13,000 have died in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014, according to the U.N.
Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov is now claiming Russia has no plans to attack. We’ve heard that line before. What counts is whether troops and tanks back away from Ukraine. Either way, Russia is downplaying expectations for the call – that’s Team Putin preparing Russian public opinion. Usually big meetings deliver at least a few minor agreements, but this call might not if Biden hangs tough.
Here’s what Biden must understand. Putin’s tactics come straight from Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin who said in 1917: “Probe with a bayonet; if you meet steel, stop! If you meet mush, then push.”
That’s Biden’s choice for the USA: to be steel or mush. Putin loves summits and wants to see if his pressure campaign – Ukraine build-up, blowing up the satellite, turmoil in Belarus – has rattled Biden.
Last week NATO doubled down and is totally committed to a sovereign Ukraine. NATO nations are already taking defensive action.
The lingering problem, of course, is Biden’s credibility. Granted, Biden hosted Ukraine’s President Zelensky at the White House Sep. 1, and increased military aid.
But Biden has a lot to live down. As Vice President, Biden was one of the Obama team who let Putin take the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Here are four things to know about the Dec. 7 summit:
1. It’s a rush job. This summit popped up in late November. Biden, who I think is in way over his head, did okay with Putin in Geneva last June, delivering tough cyber threats. But that was before the fall of Kabul showed the utter ineptitude of Biden as a Commander-in-Chief. On their call, Biden will talk and lecture; Putin will snap out sarcastic remarks. Whatever they say, Putin must come away convinced of America is serious or risks for Ukraine go up.
2. NATO is muscled up. One Russian boot across the border and NATO will be unified like you’ve never seen. The 30-nation Euro-Atlantic alliance is primed to deter and counter rash Russian actions. On Nov. 15, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Putin not to make a “tragic mistake” over Ukraine. NATO has started defensive preparations, according to its highly-regarded Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The NATO Foreign Ministers meeting on Nov. 30 meeting confirmed 100% support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
3. No one knows Putin’s intentions. “Fluid” is all Stoltenberg will say. Putin wants the world to think Russia is too strong and dangerous to resist. When Russia blew up that satellite on orbit last month, it may have been a signal that Russia will fight in space as well as on land. Don’t forget Putin is also showing off for China.
4. America is already involved. American planes, drones, satellites and ships in the Black Sea are all staring at Russia’s forces. The crucial US task right now is watching Russia’s disposition of forces to see if they are ready to march or not. One thing’s for sure, this won’t be a surprise attack. Heat up one tank engine and we’ll know about it.
Biden and NATO can do more to deter Putin. Start with immediate air exercises in Ukraine with US and NATO aircraft. Next, let Treasury tell us more about the painful sanctions they have in store for Putin, his buddies and Russia’s access to international banking. Finally, it’s time for Biden to lay down the steel: the US and NATO will not stand for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
America’s allies and friends need strong leadership, not another fumble.
Biden himself needs a win. After a disastrous year, holding firm with NATO against Russia is essential to restoring Biden’s credibility as Commander in Chief.
Let’s hope Biden comes on strong and Putin sees the folly of attacking Ukraine.