What the Biden-Putin Summit Means for Ukraine

June 12, 2021 Topic: U.S.-Russia Relations

What the Biden-Putin Summit Means for Ukraine

Both the Kremlin and the White House have set a low bar for the upcoming summit, which is not expected to yield any substantive agreements or major policy changes. Ukraine will continue to be a major source of contention between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to meet next week in Geneva. The meeting will come as part of Biden’s first overseas trip, which opened with the President’s participation at the G7 summit on Friday and will also include his attendance at the June 14 NATO summit in Brussels.

A White House press statement indicated that the leaders will discuss a “common agenda to ensure global health security, stimulate global economic recovery, tackle climate change, enhance digital and trade cooperation, strengthen democracy, and address mutual foreign policy concerns.”

The summit could offer a venue for potentially productive discussion on select questions of strategic stability, building on the prior willingness of both leaders to find common ground on nuclear arms control issues. Nevertheless, Putin and Biden are expected to air a wide range of foreign policy disagreements. Though the full summit agenda is unknown, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki previously confirmed that the discussions will include recent developments in Belarus and Ukraine. The latter has long been a flashpoint in the Kremlin’s difficult relationship with the west, harkening back to the 2014 Euromaidan movement and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea.

Earlier this week, Putin issued a dire warning to Kiev over Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects. “At least 50% of Ukrainian residents don’t want entry into NATO and these are smart people,” he said on Russian state TV, noting that the proliferation of NATO strategic and tactical weapons systems so close to Russia’s border poses unacceptable risks and is viewed in Moscow as a “red line.”

 “They understand, they don’t want to wind up on the firing line, they don’t want to be bargaining chips or cannon fodder,” Putin added. These are among Putin’s toughest comments yet on the question of Ukraine, pointing to renewed fears in Moscow over Kiev’s NATO ambitions. Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects remain exceedingly slim, but, Putin noted, “no one is saying no… there are formal restrictions, but there is no guarantee that Ukraine will not enter NATO.”

Putin’s remarks sit in the shadow of the upcoming summit, but there is another piece of context underlying the recent flare-up in tensions between Kiev and Moscow: Ukraine’s May 18 introduction of a bill on “indigenous peoples.” Putin attacked the bill, which recognizes Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, and Karaits, as  "indigenous peoples of Ukraine,” as “not simply incorrect, but funny and stupid.” Putin argued during his TV interview that the bill echoes the “theory and practices of Nazi Germany,” adding that "It is a very powerful, a very serious blow to the Russian nation in general and we, of course, cannot be indifferent to this."

But, while Putin and others in Moscow feel that Ukraine is being groomed by the west “as some kind of antipode of Russia,” some Ukrainian elites tacitly fear an opposite outcome: namely, that Kiev could be thrown under the bus as part of a bigger deal between Putin and Biden.

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky claimed that he learned from the news that Washington decided to waive sanctions on the company overseeing construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Blinken explicitly rebuffed Zelensky’s suggestion at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Tuesday: “For the record, we did share with our Ukrainian partners our intentions when it came to the pipeline. And maybe that information didn’t get directly to President Zelensky. It certainly should have.”

Zelensky expressed dismay with the Biden administration’s decision on Nord Stream 2 in a remarkably candid interview with Axios, claiming that it could “dampen” Ukrainian confidence in the “unwavering support” of the United States. Drawing a colorful analogy to Michael Jordan’s tactical cunning on the basketball court, Zelensky offered hope that there is a hidden pro-Ukrainian aspect to Biden’s summit plan: “I think that his final three-pointer is not in the net yet, and I would like to believe that this is all part of his tactics. If this is not the case, that will be a great pity, not only for me but for the United States as well, I am sure.” The interviewer commended Zelensky on his “optimistic spin,” to which the Ukrainian President replied, “it’s like, written on your money. We trust in God.”

Zelensky added that the White House had not yet consulted with him, suggesting a face-to-face meeting with the US President prior to the summit. When asked how he feels about Biden meeting with Putin before meeting with him, Zelensky offered a grim assessment: “Basically… it’s a geopolitical vision: there are the “empires”, there are the great powers of the world, and there is everybody else.”

Several days following the Axios interview, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan revealed that Biden and Zelensky spoke by phone. “President Biden was able to tell President Zelensky that he will stand up firmly for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and its aspirations as we go forward. And he also told President Zelensky that he looks forward to welcoming him to the White House this summer after he returns from Europe,” he said. A subsequent White House press release did not indicate that the topic of the Biden-Putin summit was directly broached, nor does it seem that Biden offered Zelensky any concrete assurances, promises, or concessions beyond Washington’s generic, non-binding commitments to the country’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.”

Nevertheless, not much is likely to change in the short to medium term. Both the Kremlin and the White House have set a low bar for the upcoming summit, which is not expected to yield any substantive agreements or major policy changes. Ukraine will continue to be a major source of contention between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future. Whether or not the summit can plant the seeds of constructive dialogue on specific issues-particularly in finding a resolution to the ongoing Donbas conflict, which has lasted longer than the Second World War and cost thousands of lives on both sides, remains to be seen.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.

Image: Reuters