Biden and Putin

Biden-Putin Call Solves Nothing, US Signals ‘Deterrence by Punishment’

December 09, 2021
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Now that the first waves of commentary on the Dec. 7 video summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have crested, we can begin to situate the larger context in which the discussions took place.

From the U.S. side, the overriding purpose of the call was to make sure the Kremlin has no doubt that the United States wants to deter any further Russian military action or incursion into Ukraine. Both in the direct conversations with the Russian president, and in the subsequent public commentary, especially by U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the Biden team has eschewed ambiguity in favor of clear statements about what the U.S. would be prepared to do in the event Russian forces move further into Ukraine. What is important to note, however, is the type of deterrent posture Washington has signaled. Despite the appeals and recommendations of some within the U.S. Congress and from European allies such as Poland, the United States is not prepared to engage in a "deterrence by denial" approach—moving NATO forces into Ukraine to help create a barrier against Russian action, or even supplying the large amounts of conventional military equipment to Ukraine that would be required to halt any sustained Russian operation.

Instead, the Biden administration has opted for a "deterrence by punishment" stance: that while the U.S. cannot prevent a Russian incursion, it would impose such costs on Moscow that any benefits from advancing into Ukraine would be swamped by the losses. In particular, Biden has highlighted the primacy of economic tools. The types of sanctions the U.S. has signaled it would use—such as prohibitions on Russian state and private entities to raise capital from U.S. markets or even exclusion from the SWIFT inter-bank settlement mechanism—would not only cripple Russia's ability to sell its energy (and to engage in important financial transactions) but would be designed to prevent Moscow from moving ahead with the major energy and economic projects it has outlined for the 2020s upon which its future economic health (and ability to remain a major power) depends.  

While perhaps not as satisfying to those who want to use military tools, the threat of sanctions always captures the Kremlin's attention. Moreover, despite all the bluster about how the Russian economy is sanctions-proof and Russia's European partners will defy Washington's dictates, Putin only has to see the "say-do" gap in terms of the European response to the Trump administration's decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose crippling sanctions. European rhetorical defiance was not matched by action; a relatively anemic attempt to create an alternate payments mechanism did not reassure European firms who moved to implement U.S. directives. China's own record on U.S. sanctions—from those imposed after 2014 with regard to Ukraine to U.S. measures taken against Venezuelan oil—also suggests that Beijing will not extend a full-fledged lifeline to Russia.

Moscow also has clear evidence that despite all the talk in Europe about "strategic autonomy" and a Europe that should not have to take directions from Washington, there is a much higher (albeit quiet) level of compliance with American directives. When outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Russia for her farewell tour, her statements seemed to indicate that Europeans were finally prepared to take greater notice of Ukrainian non-compliance with provisions of the Minsk Accords, while declaring that Germany would not allow any outside pressure to sway its commitment to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Since that point, however, German and European policy has not changed (in continuing to focus on Russian transgressions). Moreover, the sudden discovery by German regulators that the operating company for Nord Stream 2 was registered in Switzerland, and needed to be re-registered as a German corporate entity—a detail that seems to have not been noticed for the five years of its existence—could be interpreted as a face-saving device by the Germans: while still proclaiming that the United States cannot dictate to Germany what to do about Nord Stream 2, the effective suspension of the certification process, which all but guarantees that Nord Stream 2 could not go into service until summer 2022, is a de facto acquiescence to U.S. requests.

The Kremlin, therefore, went into this summit with the mindset that any progress on the Ukraine question must happen because of an agreement with the United States—that Germany, France or other European states would never be prepared to defy Washington. At the same time, the conclusion is that only the Americans can go to Kyiv and pressure the Zelenskiy administration to make concessions.

The Putin team also was growing tired of the continuation of the Obama-era assessment that Russia is primarily a declining regional power, with the real action in world politics shifting to the Indo-Pacific basin. Moscow wants to be back on the U.S. presidential agenda as one of the top concerns for U.S. policymakers, and having a Putin-Biden call both after the Putin visit to India and the Biden summit with Xi Jinping is a way of keeping Russia within the ranks of the great powers. The way that the Kremlin framed the Biden-Putin call—with its call-out to World War II (less, I believe, as an invocation of the wartime alliance, and more as a subtle reminder of the role played by the U.S. and USSR in shaping the post-war order)—used language consciously emulating the 1972 Moscow summit communique about how important questions of European and global security cannot be resolved without the active cooperation of both countries. Putin cannot also have been displeased with how the aftermath of the call unfolded. Just as Ronald Reagan left his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985 to fly to Brussels to then brief the allies, Biden ended his call with Putin, and then reached out both to Zelenskiy but also to key allies. The implication is clear: Putin and Biden had a conversation, and Biden will then communicate to other parties.

The Russian goal here seems quite clear: where Germany and France have largely failed to compel Ukrainian compliance with the Minsk accords, Putin is now turning to Biden. The United States is now prepared to at least consider Russian proposals for European security and to confer with its leading European allies about ways to provide reassurances to Moscow. For its part, the European Union, in its forthcoming summit with “eastern partnership” states, will deliberately not talk about enlargement or any prospect for membership.

Moreover, if the Minsk accords are completely fulfilled, then Putin's prima facie demand for "firm guarantees" about an end to NATO enlargement become moot. The devolved system Minsk envisions guarantees a Donetsk/Luhansk veto over Ukraine joining NATO, without requiring any pledge from the West to stop enlargement.

The secondary goal is also achievable: getting the United States to recognize and accept the Nord Stream 2 fait accompli. For his own domestic political purposes, Biden opposed Congressional legislation that would have mandated sanctions. He, of course, retains the executive authority to impose sanctions by presidential fiat—but, as long as a diplomatic process for defusing the Ukraine crisis is operating, Biden has indicated he will stay his hand. Now, we have a competition of clocks: the German certification process for Nord Stream 2 against the lower-level talks on Ukraine that the Kremlin has proposed with Moscow hoping that Nord Stream 2 will make it fully across the finish line.

For much of 2021, the preference of the Biden team was to wrap up matters with Russia so as to be able to focus on China. The current crisis makes clear that Russia cannot be ignored. The call solved nothing, but guarantees that the Biden administration is going to have to devote more attention and time to Moscow in 2022.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a non-residential fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Photo from shared under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.