To Russia, with love: Why has diplomacy failed?

President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin

US President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin

Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

By all reasonable measures, there’s little love between Russia and the US this Valentine’s Day. The recent flurry of diplomacy between Russia and the West has been a failure with a series of recent high-profile meetings only leading to further stagnation and reports that Putin is moving closer towards military intervention.

Over the weekend: A call on Saturday between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin — the American leader warned of “severe costs” if Russia invades — appeared to fall flat. This followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s chat with UK Foreign Sec. Liz Truss, which he characterized as a conversation between “the mute with the deaf.” Meanwhile, France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has tried to position himself as Europe’s chief interlocutor, made little progress in a weekend call with the Kremlin, and an earlier meeting of the Normandy Four – Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France – failed to even agree on language for a joint statement.


So, why is diplomacy floundering?

Russia and the West don’t speak the same love language.

As Russia has bolstered its military capabilities across Eastern Europe in recent weeks, American and European leaders have drawn on Western values to try and change the Kremlin’s behavior.

Biden says an invasion will make Moscow an international pariah, and Truss recently said London had “made clear that Russia needed to live up to the international commitments it had entered into.” But such rhetoric about the rules-based international order is no way to woo Russia: Putin — whose politics are centered on restoring control over Central and Eastern Europe — does not care much for the US-led international order, and he’s unlikely to be swayed by bleeding-heart appeals to post-World War II norms and values.

Some believe the Kremlin is ready to go head to head with the West. “Putin has been preparing the country, including the economy, for some sort of long-term standoff with the West,” says Joshua Yaffa, a Moscow-based correspondent for the New Yorker. He points to the accumulation of the $630 billion reserve fund, “which could be used to cushion the ruble from exchange rate shocks” if Washington sanctions Russian financial institutions.

Is the West all bark and no bite?

Biden has repeatedly said he will not send US troops to defend Ukraine. For months, the White House has been sounding the alarm on the urgency of the Russian threat, while at the same time highlighting the limits of what it’s willing to do about it. This dynamic — not unlike a jilted lover whining about betrayal but never heading for the door — has emboldened Putin to increase military deployments around Ukraine rather than pull back.

To be sure, Biden has threatened Russia with new economic sanctions if Moscow ups the ante in Ukraine. But discord between the US and its European partners over how to respond to Russian aggression has only reinforced Putin’s view of Western weakness. The Kremlin knows that competing interests — including some European states’ heavy reliance on Russian commodities — is making it very difficult for the West to coordinate a united response.

Considering the apparent reluctance from some Western allies to further confront Russia, can the US go it alone? Given Washington's dominance over the international financial system, Yaffa believes the Biden administration has access to some “nuclear options” that could inflict serious harm on the Russian economy. But “to the extent that the Western response is credible and durable over the long term,” he adds, “[Washington] does need to be united” with other European capitals.

Enter Olaf. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits Ukraine and Russia on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Given what’s at stake in German-Russia relations — particularly the future of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — Putin may be inclined to try and find some common ground with the German leader. Can the two find some love for Russia and the West? Whatever happens, Scholz’s shot at diplomacy will shine a light on the likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough — or breakup — in the days ahead.

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