The first-of-its-kind virtual summit of Russian and US presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden provides some reason to hope for a relaxation of tensions in bilateral relations, but it is too early to really take a breath. This is how Moscow experts assess the results of the two-hour face-to-face meeting of the leaders, which took place yesterday in the format of a teleconference between Sochi and Washington.
The main subject of discussion at it was the situation around Ukraine, as well as Russia’s interest in obtaining reliable, legally fixed security guarantees on our western borders. However, according to a person familiar with the discussion, “it cannot be said that the Americans took our warnings about the“ red lines. ”The interlocutor also confirmed, without going into details, that direct threats against our country were also heard at the meeting again. he believes that the “long-awaited” conversation that took place “gives rise to certain hopes,” but everything will depend on what follows.
“The diagnosis is the same: it is stably bad,” another specialist stated. In his opinion, oddly enough, this is even “good in itself”, since “the degree of hysteria on the other side on the eve of the event was lifted to the brink of absurdity.” “In some ways, they even went too far with threats,” said my interlocutor, who is also convinced that “there is no need to relax.”
For all that, the Kremlin’s official report on the “frank and businesslike” conversation between the presidents emphasized, above all, its positive aspects. According to this document, the leaders reaffirmed the importance of preserving the “spirit of Geneva” that developed at their June summit, and also remembered the alliance of the two countries during World War II and recognized it as an example for building contacts and working together in today’s realities.
Incidentally, The New York Times later noted that this Russian report was “unusually detailed” for this kind of documents. Indeed, it did compare favorably with the scanty text circulated by the White House. The last one, in my opinion, was remarkable only by the fact that it contains three times – in one paragraph! – mention was made of the coordination of US efforts with allies and partners, and the word “allies” for some reason was spelled differently: twice with a capital letter, and once with a lowercase letter.
Later, by the way, an equally lapidary report was posted on Biden’s teleconference with these same partners – the leaders of Great Britain, Germany, Italy and France, whom he informed about the results of his negotiations with the President of Russia. They expected the same courtesy from Washington in Kiev, but Biden postponed the conversation with Vladimir Zelensky until Thursday.
Where is the “escalation”?
There was nothing new and unexpected in the US positions reflected in these readouts, but there were internal contradictions. According to the first report, Biden at the summit “expressed deep concern of the US and [their] European allies about the escalation of Russian forces around Ukraine and made it clear that the US and [their] allies will respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of a military escalation.” According to the second, the owner of the White House told his European interlocutors “about his conversation with President Putin, in which he discussed the serious consequences of the Russian military action in Ukraine and the need for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy.”
It was formulated at least awkwardly, since there has never been any “military action” by Russia in the neighboring country. As for the allegations of “escalation” on Russian territory, what, strictly speaking, can the West have in this regard? Within its borders, Russia has every right to deploy troops and weapons wherever it sees fit. Moscow not only does not hide that it is concerned about the approach of NATO forces and assets close to these borders and constant provocations in the immediate vicinity, but it itself constantly draws attention to the dangerous probing of our “red lines” by its neighbors. Although, in principle, we establish these lines ourselves and it is not important for us whether they are recognized by anyone else or not.
At the same time, the Russian Federation always emphasizes that we are not going to threaten anyone, but we are not hiding our forces either. President Putin has publicly and in detail talked many times about the latest weapons created in Russia in recent years in response to the US withdrawal from specialized international treaties. At one time it even surprised me, until my diplomatic friends explained to me that in the military sphere it is customary to hide not strength, but weakness. Perhaps that is why, by the way, Washington withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty with its strict inspection regime a year ago.
And the demonstration of force often happens not only in the military sphere, but also in politics. In my opinion, in this spirit one can understand, for example, the confirmation of Russia’s strong ties with its own friends and partners in the CSTO, SCO and BRICS, primarily India and China. Commentators overseas, of course, drew attention to the fact that on the eve of his conversation with Biden, Putin flew to New Delhi and talked there friendly with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At the meeting with Biden from the first minutes it was noticeable that the Russian press service was working more efficiently and more efficiently than the American one. Suffice it to say that TV channels in the United States had to use the brief video of the beginning of the meeting circulated by the Kremlin, and they even complained about it on social media. Our tape showed that Biden hesitated at first with the introduction of the conversation, and then tried to start it on a friendly note.
On the American side, the first illustration for the summit was released as a photograph taken in the White House Situation Room. Biden sits on it at the head of the table, flanked by four aides, including US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Later, they confirmed to me that this directly contradicted the previously reached agreement, according to which the leaders had to communicate strictly one-on-one, and that such non-obligation causes heartburn on the Russian side. Doubts are understandable: how to negotiate serious things, if even in small things (which in fact do not happen at summits) you cannot rely on partners?
However, this only confirms that the concerns of others are of little interest to the Americans, for them only their own interests and their own home audience are important. She was carefully taken care of: in Washington, a volley of public statements from high-ranking officials was timed to coincide with the summit – from Blinken, Sullivan and White House press secretary Jen Psaki to Undersecretaries of State Wendy Sherman and Victoria Nuland. Formally, this propaganda artillery attack was considered a coincidence, since some of the performances were planned in advance, but I, for example, based on more than a quarter-century of experience in the United States, do not believe in such coincidences.
It is neither the place nor the time to retell the endless bureaucratic talking shop, which generally fit into the framework of the White House dictations. I will limit myself to one example – from Blinken’s conversation with the Wall Street Journal reporter at the CEO Council Summit. Rate the leading question.
“For starters, the friction between Russia and Ukraine,” the journalist takes the bull by the horns. “Presidents Biden and Putin have just concluded a virtual meeting. In the past, you have expressed deep concern about the renewed plans of Russian aggression in Ukraine, where a mass of troops are obviously concentrated on the border. After this meeting, are you more or less afraid that it could escalate into a conflict? “
After the opening greetings, the minister replies: “There is no substitute for direct communication between our president and President Putin. Ultimately, it is President Putin who makes decisions in Russia. that yes, we are deeply concerned about the accumulation of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and other plans that they seem to have for a possible renewal of aggression against Ukraine. ” Well, etc. etc. with an obligatory warning about “the consequences that would follow from any new act of aggression” and a mention of the “alternative – in the form of diplomacy.”
As for the aforementioned consequences, they mean economic, not military: no one is going to defend Ukraine overseas by force of arms. It’s another matter that American lawmakers still give money for weapons (just on Tuesday, the lower house of the US Congress approved the draft defense budget for the 2022 fiscal year, providing for the allocation of $ 300 million for military assistance to Kiev), and for potential economic cards they are inventing more and more formidable names – up to “hellish sanctions” (Sanctions from Hell). It seems like they compare themselves to devils.
Among the most severe measures mentioned in this regard is the possible disconnection of Russia from the SWIFT network (international interbank system for transferring information and making payments). This is an old idea, in Moscow they have already responded to it many times. And on the day of the summit, I came across an amusing commentary on the same topic, written by political scientist and co-founder of the American Public Committee for Accord between East and West, Gilbert Doctorow – “Biden’s Mousetrap”.
“If, as a direct result of [the SWIFT shutdown], it is impossible for Russians to pay for gas supplies to Europe, which make up 40% of all European imports … then they will have a contractual basis for stopping such supplies,” the American analyst writes. those American vassals who now rule Europe will be able to withstand the revolt of business and the general population at home when the lights go out, just to please Biden and play along with America in its political games. And even now, when winter comes, and there are few gas reserves in European territory! “
“Who can Biden catch in his mousetrap?” – asks Doctorow. And he replies: “Only one person – the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky. Is he stupid enough to get into such a trap, possibly fatal, by risking a war with Russia, which, as everyone knows, he is not able to win, unless Putin even this second-rate actor can’t be so dumb. “
However, as far as I know, the SWIFT topic was not discussed at the summit. And the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov confirmed today at a briefing for journalists that the threat of stopping Nord Stream 2 during the teleconference was also “not mentioned in any way.”
I asked Peskov if the Kremlin envisions any concrete steps following the talks between Putin and Biden, and if so, when they can be expected. “The presidents agreed that they will appoint their representatives, who will very quickly begin a discussion of the [current] difficult confrontational situation, strategic security issues on the continent,” the Kremlin spokesman said. that it should take place very, very quickly. “
Peskov did not specify how this negotiation process will relate to the ongoing dialogue between Russia and the United States on strategic stability. “Whether it will be in the depths of this dialogue or there will be something separate remains to be decided,” he said. “Depending on which representatives the presidents will appoint for the current situation.”