Huddling with Seoul and Tokyo reminds the Kremlin of the global reach of America’s alliance network. Chatting with the UAE and Kuwait — both major energy producers — signals to Russia that Washington has a plan for what happens if Moscow cuts off Europe’s gas.
So far, though, the diplomatic offensive doesn’t seem to be changing Vladimir Putin’s calculations. The Russian leader, who already invaded Ukraine once in 2014, appears more concerned about redrawing the global map to his liking and little moved by the machinations of a U.S. administration he intends to outlast.
Some of the countries that have been on the list of America’s outreach, such as Brazil and India, have their own economic and military relations with Russia to consider, making the Biden administration’s task tougher. Even America’s traditional allies, like Germany, are weighing their economic ties to Russia as they ponder how to respond to a potential invasion.
Russia, too, is making the rounds. Putin, though often silent, plans to chat with France’s president later this week and engaged with Italian businesses on Wednesday. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov have been proclaiming that it’s the Biden administration — not Moscow — that is ratcheting up the threat of war.
In Washington, “this is an administration that clearly has a bunch of red alerts running,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Murphy is at times critical of the Biden team’s foreign policy, but praised its all-out diplomatic effort on the Ukraine crisis, adding, “I think it’s tough in Europe when you have some allies who are not convinced this is going to happen.”
Unstable and unpredictable
Putin began amassing troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine last fall. Though Putin had sent troops to the border last spring, the new deployment was significantly larger. New Russian positions also have different capabilities, including support functions and capacity for quick deployment of reservists, a senior administration official said. The situation boded ill for Biden’s desire to have a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia.
Biden and his aides promised from the start of their tenure that they would use a “diplomacy-first” approach to such global crises — a break with the tweet-fueled rancor of the Donald Trump years. And they have sought to fulfill that pledge, all the way up to Biden himself. The president held a call with Putin in late December, warning him that he and his country would face severe economic sanctions and other penalties should they violate Ukraine’s sovereignty once again.
In the weeks since, administration officials have been on the phone, on the road and on Zoom pushing the same message while wrangling other countries on board. There have been dozens, at this point possibly hundreds, of engagements on both bilateral and multilateral levels. Everyone from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Treasury Department officials have engaged in outreach, alongside diplomats like Blinken.
Among the busiest has been Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who took a lead role in a series of talks involving Russia, the U.S. and European and NATO countries the week of Jan. 10. Blinken, too, has hit the road and the phones, including meeting with Lavrov last week.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and his principal deputy Jon Finer also have been engaging counterparts. Other key players include Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland and ambassadors Julianne Smith and Michael Carpenter, as well as the CIA’s Burns.
Earlier in the administration, Sullivan and Finer were considered less hawkish on Russia than Blinken and Nuland. Those differences are believed to have played out in Biden’s decision to limit the sanctions he imposed on Russia and Germany related to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But foreign policy hands now say the administration appears more internally united than ever on the need to stand up to the Kremlin.
“Reality has slapped them in the face, and they realize that the Russians are the threat to them right now,” said William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, of the administration.
Despite the diplomatic outreach, it’s not certain that even America’s NATO and European allies are truly unified against Putin.
Different leaders have been saying different things, with some pushing forth their own views on how to engage Russia — France’s Emmanuel Macron has said the European Union should start its own dialogue with the Kremlin. On the other hand, the United Kingdom has been public about its alignment with the U.S. position; it announced weapons shipments to Ukraine and unveiled that it had learned that Russia was planning to install a puppet regime in Kyiv.
Some of the hesitation involves the fact that many of the European countries have greater energy and other trade links with Russia than the United States. Germany, which has long pushed for the Nord Stream 2 project, appears squeamish at times about coming down too hard on the Kremlin. Earlier talk of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial network, for instance, appears to have faded amid reported concerns from some European countries. And, as in the case of Croatia, some European countries’ internal politics can lead to mixed messaging about their commitment.
Biden admitted during a recent news conference that America’s European allies weren’t all in sync on reacting to Putin’s aggression, in part because it could involve the cyber realm or fall short of an actual military invasion. “There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens — the degree to which they’re able to go,” Biden said.
The U.S. diplomacy on the Ukraine crisis goes well beyond Europe, however, and Biden has himself played a role in that.
Last week, he held a virtual meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. According to a White House readout, the two “committed to work closely together to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine.” Japan’s relationship with Russia — with which it has some lingering territorial disputes — has been cooling off in recent years following repeated efforts by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to improve them. Japan has eyed Russia’s growing ties to China with wariness.
Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Tomita Koji, told POLITICO that his country has been trying to impress upon Russia the importance of respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
He declined to say whether or how Japan would impose economic sanctions on Russia if it goes ahead with an invasion. “Really, each country has a different approach to the sanctions,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be a monolithic action.”
Another major U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific is South Korea, with whose foreign minister Blinken discussed Ukraine in mid-January. South Korea has long tried to maintain good relations with Russia while also keeping up its alliance with the United States, and where it will ultimately land should the Russia-Ukraine crisis spiral is unclear at the moment. In October, Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, praised Seoul for trying to “foster a close partnership with the Russian Federation.”
Sherman last week spoke about Ukraine with the foreign secretary of India, another Asian country that has to balance its relations with Russia, China and the United States. While the U.S. readout of the conversation mentioned Ukraine, the Indian readout, issued via Twitter, did not, a sign of the sensitivity of the matter in New Delhi. In December, India and Russia announced they were expanding their defense ties, making India’s relations with the United States somewhat more awkward despite the two countries’ shared concerns about China.
The discussions about Ukraine with countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to deal in part with ways that those energy producing countries could help make up for any such supply shortages should Russia reduce oil and gas flows to European countries if the crisis spirals.
U.S. officials have declined to say which countries specifically they are talking to about that topic, citing the sensitivity and market impacts. On a call about the topic Tuesday, though, a senior administration official said the outreach has covered “various areas of the world — from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States.” (The U.S. is a major energy producer).
Earlier this month, Blinken spoke about “a need for a strong, united response against further Russian aggression against Ukraine” with his Brazilian counterpart. Brazil is a major oil producer, but it also has had a generally improving relationship with Russia, so it’s not certain to back Washington in a dispute with Moscow. In fact, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a bombastic, Trump-like figure, is expected to visit Russia soon.
Requests for comment from Indian, Brazilian, Emirati and Kuwaiti officials were not immediately successful.
Murphy said it’s important for the administration to lay out the example Russia could be setting if he tries to take Ukraine and finds little global resistance.
“Big countries like India and Brazil need to understand the potential consequences,” Murphy said. “In particular, India needs to understand that their problems with China could get more acute if Russia gets away with this.”
Murphy said he’s skeptical there will be a major diplomatic breakthrough, but that it was important to make the costs clear to Putin, and that that could affect how far he’s willing to go. “I think Putin is still evaluating whether a full-blown invasion is worth it,” Murphy said.
Alexander Ward contributed to this report.