20 years under Putin: a timeline

On June 16, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Geneva for the first time, and Ukraine could be one of the critical issues on the agenda. However, despite the White House’s aspirations for a more stable relationship with Russia, the Kremlin has already made clear that it will defend its “red lines.” Thus, the likelihood of a new “reset” in bilateral relations remains very low.

 

Joe iden and Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 at the Villa La Grange in Geneva. Photos: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons; kremlin.ru

 

In early June, the Washington Post published a column by Joe Biden in which the American president outlined his approach to the upcoming summit with Vladimir Putin: “We are standing united to address Russia’s challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine, and there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests. In my phone calls with President Putin, I have been clear and direct. The United States does not seek conflict. We want a stable and predictable relationship where we can work with Russia on issues like strategic stability and arms control.” 

Commenting on a possible list of issues to be discussed at the meeting between Biden and Putin, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the agenda would be flexible (“much of the time will be devoted to the issues that the heads of state want to voice”) but did not rule out Ukraine as one of the topics.

It is not surprising: Ukraine is one of the most pressing issues in U.S.-Russian relations, and the Donbass conflict is the biggest challenge to the European security architecture. Observers also suggest that discussions of the situation in Ukraine may bring up the issue of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. [Editor’s note: The pipeline is a joint project of Russian Gazprom, German companies Wintershall and Uniper, as well as British-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, French Engie, and Austrian OMV to export Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine.]

In late May, it was reported that the United States refused to impose further sanctions against Nord Stream 2. Although Biden called the project a “bad deal,” additional sanctions, in his opinion, could damage U.S.-German relations. The U.S. administration’s decision sparked a wave of criticism both at home and abroad—especially in Ukraine, which views the pipeline as a dire threat to its national security.

On June 6, Axios published an interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the U.S. decision and offered Biden a personal meeting—before the summit with Putin in Geneva. According to Zelensky, Nord Stream 2 is “a weapon in Moscow’s hands,” and the U.S. is the only country capable of stopping Russia. The Ukrainian leader also stressed that the White House decision on sanctions might “undermine the [the Ukrainian people’s] trust” in the U.S.

Following the release of the interview, presidents Zelensky and Biden spoke over the telephone, discussing the Nord Stream 2 and other issues, including the conflict in Donbass, Ukraine’s de-oligarchization policy, and its integration into NATO and the EU. According to Mykhaylo Podolyak, advisor to the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, president Biden invited his Ukrainian counterpart to visit Washington in July.

A few hours after the conversation, the Ukrainian presidential office deleted an earlier announcement that Biden allegedly supported providing Ukraine with a NATO Membership Action Plan. Instead, the Ukrainian statement now reads: “Joe Biden has assured that Ukraine’s position will certainly be taken into account in discussions on strategic issues in NATO, as well as planned events of the highest level.”  

The likelihood of a “great deal” or a “reset” between the Kremlin and the new U.S. administration, as was the case in 2009–2013, remains extremely low

Perhaps the reason for this change is the cooling of Ukrainian-American relations following Biden’s election. The U.S. has criticized the slowdown and even scaling-back of reforms initiated in Ukraine in 2014, in particular, the dismissal of the leadership of state-owned Naftogaz Ukraine, one of the country’s largest companies, and its CEO Andriy Kobolev. Soon after his resignation, the oil and gas giant’s supervisory board resigned as well. The incident was viewed as undermining the corporate governance principles strongly promoted by Western partners during the reforms. For instance, during his visit to Kyiv in May, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stressed that the change of Naftohaz’s leadership was “a bad signal, and ... it had the potential to be damaging to Ukraine’s reputation internationally.” For his part, Volodymyr Zelensky countered that Kobolev’s dismissal was not about politics but about the company’s $400 million losses in 2020. The State Fiscal Service of Ukraine is also conducting the pre-trial investigation into Naftogaz officials suspected of $100 million in tax evasion.

However, the real stumbling block in relations between Kyiv and Washington was the Biden administration’s refusal to extend sanctions against Nord Stream 2. If the pipeline is launched, Ukraine could lose at least $3 billion a year in fees for Russian gas transit to Europe. That moment is near: speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in early June, Putin announced that the construction of the pipeline project has been completed. Although the gas transit contract between Ukraine and Russia will be valid until 2024, Putin said it needs “the goodwill of the Ukrainian partners” to be implemented. The launch of Nord Stream 2 will clearly bring severe financial losses to Ukraine, but also will become Moscow’s leverage in its relations with both Kyiv and its European partners.

Putin’s current mood can be felt in his April 21 address to the Federal Assembly, which was delivered amidst the largest buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border since 2014 (according to some estimates, the number of Russian military personnel is up to 120,000). Speaking about foreign policy, the Russian president said: “Those behind provocations that threaten the core interests of our security will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time. But I hope that no one will think about crossing the ‘red line’ concerning Russia. We will determine in each specific case where it will be drawn.”

Despite the White House’s efforts to stabilize relations with Moscow and make them more “predictable,” the Kremlin will continue to assert its “red lines.” Moreover, Moscow has also not fully abandoned a military scenario with Ukraine, as indicated by the high concentration of Russian armed forces on its border.

The forthcoming summit will be a real test of strength for U.S.-Russian relations, with Ukraine as the critical issue on the agenda. Unfortunately, the likelihood of a “great deal” or a “reset” between the Kremlin and the new U.S. administration, as was the case in 2009–2013, remains extremely low, since the number of unresolved issues has been piling up for years. However, the Geneva summit could be only the first step toward addressing these tensions. 

 

Mykola Vorobiev is a Ukrainian journalist and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University.

 

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