By all reasonable measures, there is little love between Russia and the United States this Valentine’s Day. The recent flurry of diplomacy between Russia and the West has been a failure with a string of recent high-level meetings leading only to further stagnation and reports that Putin is closing in on a military intervention.
Over the weekend: A Saturday call between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin – the US leader warned of “significant costs” should Russia invade – appeared to fall flat. This followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s conversation with the British Foreign Secretary. Liz Truss, which he called a conversation between “the mute and the deaf”. Meanwhile, Frenchman Emmanuel Macron, who has tried to position himself as Europe’s main interlocutor, made little progress in a weekend call with the Kremlin, and an earlier meeting of the four from Normandy – Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – failed to even agree on language for a joint declaration.
So why is diplomacy floundering?
Russia and the West do not speak the same love language.
As Russia has beefed up its military capabilities across Eastern Europe in recent weeks, US and European leaders have relied on Western values to try to change the behavior of the Kremlin.
Biden says an invasion will make Moscow an international pariah, and Truss recently said London had “made it clear that Russia must live up to the international commitments it has made.” But such rhetoric about the rules-based international order is no way to woo Russia: Putin — whose policy centers on restoring control over central and eastern Europe — doesn’t care much about the US-led international order, and it is unlikely to be swayed by bleeding-heart appeals to post-WWII norms and values.
Some think the Kremlin is ready to confront the West. “Putin has prepared the country, including the economy, for a sort of long-term showdown with the West,” said Joshua Yaffa, Moscow-based correspondent for the New Yorker. He points to the accumulation of the $630 billion reserve fund, “which could be used to cushion the ruble from exchange rate shocks” if Washington sanctions Russian financial institutions.
Does the West bark and not bite?
Biden has repeatedly said he will not send US troops to defend Ukraine. For months, the White House has been sounding the alarm about the urgency of the Russian threat, while stressing the limits of what it is prepared to do about it. This dynamic – much like a spurned lover who complains of betrayal but never heads for the door – encouraged Putin to increase military deployments around Ukraine rather than withdraw.
True, Biden has threatened Russia with new economic sanctions if Moscow ups the ante in Ukraine. But the discord between the United States and its European partners over how to respond to Russian aggression has only reinforced Putin’s view of Western weakness. The Kremlin knows that competing interests — including the heavy reliance of some European states on Russian commodities — make it very difficult for the West to coordinate a united response.
Given the apparent reluctance of some Western allies to confront Russia further, can the United States go it alone? Given Washington’s dominance over the international financial system, Yaffa believes the Biden administration has access to some “nuclear options” that could inflict severe damage on the Russian economy. But “to the extent that the Western response is credible and sustainable over the long term,” he adds, “[Washington] needs to be united” with the other European capitals.
Enter Olaf. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travels to Ukraine and Russia respectively on Monday and Tuesday. Given what’s at stake in German-Russian relations — particularly the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — Putin might be inclined to try to find common ground with the German leader. Can the two find some love for Russia and the West? Whatever happens, Scholz’s shot at diplomacy will highlight the likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough – or breakdown – in the days ahead.