Is Russia Offering Biden an Opening on Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov says Moscow would consider a meeting between Biden and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit ‘if a proposal is received.’
For all the talk in certain Western diplomatic circles about finding an “off-ramp” for President Putin as a means to curtail the Russian strongman’s trail of destruction across Ukraine, what could be more effective than a throwing down of the gauntlet from the White House? That question just became slightly less hypothetical thanks to the customarily cunning Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who told Rossiya-1 television that Moscow would consider a meeting between President Biden and Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit “if a proposal is received.”
Mr. Lavrov prefaced that remark with, “We have said many times that we never refuse to hold meetings,” which might strike some observers as hollow, cynical, or both as Russia’s stretched military rains missiles on Ukraine (at last count there have been upward of 100 strikes since Monday alone). Be that as it may, the suggestion certainly did not come out of nowhere, and it does present the Biden administration with an opportunity of sorts.
The next G20 summit will take place November 15-16 at Bali, Indonesia, and whether Messrs. Biden and Putin will be in attendance is not yet clear. In an interview with CNN Tuesday night, Mr. Biden said that whether he envisages a sit-down with Mr. Putin in Indonesia “would depend on specifically what he wanted to talk about,” and that one topic could be jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner. Mr. Biden did attend last year’s summit at Rome, and Mr. Putin spoke via videoconference. Mr. Lavrov, who is Russia’s top diplomat, was at that parley in person and spoke with Mr. Biden over lunch.
At Bali next month, Mr. Lavrov has some damage control to do: He walked out of a previous G20 meeting there in July when Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, started speaking.
The timing of the summit is notable, as it comes about a week after America’s midterm elections. If Mr. Biden’s team is mainly focused on those in the weeks to come, it would still leave time to draw up a proposal to steer the war in Ukraine to some kind of manageable conclusion.
What that might entail is anybody’s guess, but if Washington does not come up with the necessary carrots and sticks to get the Kremlin to simmer down, that would kick the can back to the likes of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, of whom Mr. Putin has already essentially made a laughing stock in this respect.
The language coming from White House regarding the Kremlin’s brutal assaults on civilian targets in Ukraine and the prospects for peace negotiations has been remarkable mostly for its lack of remarkableness. It is possible that nearly eight months of death and destruction in distant Europe has inured some in Washington, including Secretary Blinken, if not to the volatility of the situation then certainly to its general senselessness.
Yet the White House national security spokesman, John Kirby, made an interesting statement to CNN following Moscow’s wave of revenge strikes after Ukraine’s partial destruction of the strategic Crimean bridge: “It likely was something that they had been planning for quite some time,” he said.
Mr. Lavrov’s language with respect to a Biden-Putin conversation is hardly conciliatory, but when reading between the lines — the sine qua non of untangling Russian riddles — some might find a small opening. America’s strategic backing of Kyiv has been matched by financial support, to the tune of a sum approaching $20 billion. If America starts to flex its diplomatic muscle in Europe before winter sets in, it could strengthen Ukraine’s hand as well as our own.
It is not just France that, in striking contrast to the gusto with which Britain has rallied to the Ukrainian cause, has thus far failed to bring a ceasefire to eastern Europe. The European Union as a whole has failed. This, too, presents Washington with a singular opportunity to remind the world of its standing as a superpower. Consider that the EU’s top diplomat has just reminded the world that the European Union is many things, but a superpower is not one of them. The foreign policy chief of the bloc, Josep Borrell, has lashed out at his own staff, or as the Times of London summed it up, “You’re stupid, lazy, and arrogant, EU chief tells his diplomats.”
In a dressing-down of his envoys, the plain-speaking 75-year-old Spaniard said, “This is not a moment when we are going to send flowers to all of you,” and appeared to blame Brussels, belatedly, for failing to foretell the Russian invasion. “We did not believe that the war was coming,” he told his underlings, adding “the Americans were telling us, ‘They will attack, they will attack’ — and we were quite reluctant to believe it.”