Q+A: as Ukraine conflict escalates, is it too late for Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin to hold a summit?

The Conversation

The conflict in Ukraine is changing rapidly. In the latest escalation, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, declared two separatist areas of Ukraine as independent, and used this as the pretext to send in Russian troops for what he termed “peacekeeping operations”. The world is now watching to see whether this will lead to a larger-scale invasion.

But the prospect of a summit between Putin and the US president, Joe Biden, is still on the table. Could a meeting between these two still put off the possibility of war? David Dunn, an expert on summit diplomacy, answers our questions.

Is a summit likely to go ahead?

Sometimes diplomacy is used to further understanding and agreement, and sometimes its aim is the exact opposite. Vladimir Putin’s entire diplomatic strategy throughout this crisis, including the suggestion that he attend a summit with Joe Biden, has been to wrong foot his opponents, to leave open the possibility of agreement and to use that prospect as a ruse to further his own gain.

Like the judo player that he is, Putin has used the prospect of a summit meeting to keep his opponents off balance. He has not fully committed to meeting with Biden, despite Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that the two leaders will meet this week, provided Russia does not invade Ukraine. Nor has he said it will not happen.

Biden needs to be seen to keep every avenue open for diplomacy, which is why he also hasn’t yet ruled such a meeting out, despite the mounting provocations from Moscow. Putin has sent troops into separatist regions Donetsk and Luhansk – a provocation to be sure, but apparently short of the full-scale invasion that would formally rule out the possibility of a summit. While the Russian threat of further war remains real and immediate, the option for dialogue at any level is still on the table, even if keeping the possibility open plays into Putin’s hands.

What incentive does Putin have to meet with Biden?

For Putin, attending a summit elevates Russia to the top table, giving him a platform to justify his aggressive actions to both his domestic and international audiences. The prospect of a meeting and Russia’s engagement with the diplomatic process more broadly also gives Putin a chance to stall further international counteractions and spread division in the west over the pace and severity of the response.

While Putin would probably welcome the opportunity to parade on the international stage, a meeting would offer him little else. The Kremlin has made extreme demands about upending the basis of the prevailing European security order established since the end of the cold war. The demand to remove all NATO forces from the countries that joined the alliance after 1997, and to render them effectively demilitarised, is a non-starter for the west.

Putin has clearly made the calculation that what he can achieve by force is worth more than the political costs that the international community will exact in response. His participation, if agreed at all, would most likely be to reap the tactical opportunities a summit presents.

What does Biden want? What are the obstacles to getting it?

What Biden wants from Putin is a commitment to de-escalate the crisis. He wants Russian troops removed from the Ukraine border and a demonstrated willingness to engage seriously with a reinvigorated diplomatic process.

Putin has brought Russia’s security concerns to the forefront and grabbed the world’s attention. For any meaningful conversation to continue, Putin needs to pull back from Ukraine. The summit offers Russia a chance to address its concerns through diplomacy rather than force. The unanswered question at this stage is whether Putin is amenable to such a pathway, and whether Putin himself is the biggest obstacle to a peaceful resolution.

For Biden, the challenge is to prevent Russia exploiting the potential benefits of such a meeting while giving nothing in return. Washington would need to know ahead of any summit that there was real substance to the talks and a genuine prospect of finding common ground. While Washington may be keen to engage Putin in the diplomatic process, the US administration would be mindful of being used as a smokescreen for military action in Eastern Ukraine. The danger for the White House is that Putin uses the diplomatic delay of a summit to consolidate his position on the ground even further.

What is the best outcome possible? The worst?

A Putin-Biden summit could be an opportunity for Biden to “go the extra mile” for peace. If it could be used to draw a line on the advance of Russian tanks that limited the incursion to Donetsk and Luhansk, it might be worth the political risk. But for Biden there is peril in meeting the Russian leader. Putin is both apparently closed off to reasonable argument and a serial aggressor against the established norms of international behaviour.

Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 cost him in the polls and, according to some critics, encouraged Putin to see the US as weak and inward-looking. A mishandled summit would be a gift to Biden’s Republican opponents, who would be quick to call out any deal as appeasement or any failure at the summit as ineptitude.

Former US secretary of state Dean Acheson once remarked about summits: “When a chief of state or head of government makes a fumble, the goal line is open behind him.” Biden will no doubt be weighing these words if a meeting with Putin goes ahead.

David Hastings Dunn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.