Russia-Ukraine: Diplomacy is still on the table
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off a pretty intense week. Yes, we are talking about Russia once again, with the world on the precipice of major power confrontation in a way that is both more imminent and more dangerous in frankly, anything we've seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991. I don't say that lightly.
Fortunately, diplomacy is still happening and as long as diplomacy is still happening, that means President Putin has not made a decision to invade. But having said that, the sides are still pretty far apart. I think essentially what President Biden has been able to accomplish over the last four, six weeks, number one, he has convinced the European allies that the Russians are indeed very serious about a military invasion and that as a consequence, the NATO alliance has to be as solid and as unified as humanly possible and I think that is indeed much more true today than it was a month ago. Diplomacy, as a consequence of that alignment, has a greater likelihood of working. But it also means that if diplomacy fails the level of escalation we are likely to see, both from the US and NATO and then in return in retaliation from the Russians is also much more dangerous.
The opportunity here in the near term seems to me both whether or not Putin is likely to blink. It is possible, but seem unlikely. The level of costs that are on Putin for some of the sanctions avoidance techniques that he's already engaged in are something that's very unlikely, it seems, that he would be doing, if this were just about a bluff.
Certainly the US intelligence fundamentally believes that if there isn't a diplomatic breakthrough, he's going to go ahead with this. Having said that, the costs are very significant for the Russians and I don't just mean the economic costs. I mean the diplomatic costs, the military costs of a stronger NATO with more forward deployments, of being forced into a position of supplication, economically and technologically, as a junior partner to the Chinese.
These are decisions that Putin would not take lightly and as a consequence, I think it is still plausible that even without a diplomatic breakthrough, that Putin will decide the juice is not worth the squeeze. But I wouldn't bet on that. If you made me, I'd say without a diplomatic breakthrough, he will escalate and that escalation could very easily get a hell of a lot worse in a short period of time.
Then the other question is what would be the avenue of a diplomatic breakthrough? And here it's very clear. It's the Ukrainian president needs to unilaterally back away from NATO. There was a little bit of news that was made over the weekend with the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, responding to a hypothetical question about whether NATO would be on the table, if it would avoid war. It didn't sound to me like that was anything close to a position that was thoughtful saying, "Yes, we'd give it up." Certainly every communication, both private and public from the Ukrainian President Zelensky has been, "No they're completely committed to Ukraine, as is indeed presently enshrined in their constitution."
But if there were really a choice between Ukraine facing war and Ukraine deciding to suspend their NATO application, I would like to believe that the Ukrainian president would choose the latter. I don't think he can be forced into that by the Americans and NATO allies. I don't think that they can rescind the invitation easily themselves without enormous political consequence. I think it would be very damaging for Biden. He would look very weak. I think it would be hard to get the NATO allies aligned, so you'd have the risk of breaking the alliance. It would also send a very debilitating message about American willingness to fold under pressure to the Russians in other theaters, as well as the Chinese.
So for all of those reasons, I think it is very hard for the Americans to make that statement, but it is important for the Ukrainian president to consider it very seriously and I think the level of pressure and the level of focus that he has right now, given the alternatives, because if the Russians invade, that's not just the end of his presidency. In many ways, that can be the end of his country and I would hate to be in the position of the Ukrainian president right now.
But nonetheless, he has to be thinking about his future and if he's going to back down, he's not going to back down until he needs to, which means I don't think the fact that he has been resolute on this issue over the past months, when an attack was not imminent and when he didn't necessarily know what the final bid offer was going to be from the allies would look like, but that doesn't tell you anything about what he's going to do at the end of the day.
And that's surely a reason why Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told Putin earlier today, "Yes, I would give diplomacy a greater likelihood of playing out. I wouldn't be thinking about attacking right now." Now by the way, when the Russian foreign minister says that in front of the cameras to the Russian president that is completely staged. He is not being asked. He has no power over this. That is the Russian president, putting him up as a prop to create the opportunity for another round of diplomacy.
So I will say, I feel quite confident at this point, that we have another round of diplomacy to go through. I feel quite confident that if the Russians decide to invade that it will not be until after the closing ceremonies at the Olympics, until after the German chancellor leaves Moscow tomorrow. Until after there is more engagement between the Americans, the Europeans, and the Ukrainians with Russia.
That also means that there's no inevitability here, but it is an incredibly dangerous circumstance and to be very clear, it should be in everyone's interest here to take a diplomatic off-ramp. There is no win for military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia. The implications for everyone involved, most importantly, the Ukrainian people, but everyone involved, will be nothing but negative. And that should really sharpen the minds and the focus of all of those that are engaged, being interlocutors on all of this, while diplomacy is still playing out this week.
So, that's it for me. I hope everyone's well. We'll be following this very, very closely. Be good.
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