Washington's Black Sea allies worry about being pawns in Biden-Putin chess match as summit nears

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Washington's Black Sea allies worry about being pawns in Biden-Putin chess match as summit nears

BUCHAREST, Romania — Government ministers in the former Soviet and communist countries along the Black Sea basin are bracing for President Joe Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia next Wednesday in Geneva. But, analysts are warning them to keep their expectations low.

They hope the American president will stand for democratic ideals and support their security, but regional analysts say they may be pawns in a broader geopolitical chess match between great power rivals.

From Kyiv to Bucharest, government leaders are attempting to influence Biden ahead of the meeting, underscoring that their democracy depends on the United States and NATO and warning about the implications of allowing continued Russian aggression in the region. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and fostered a frozen conflict that divides the country. Likewise, in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and instigated a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that continues as a low-intensity conflict fueled by Russian military support. [I will never stop challenging the misrepresentation in the word “separatist”. It is a Kremlin term when, in fact, those fighting Putin’s war against Ukraine in the Donbas are Russian proxies and Russian regulars. RAM]

“I consider this being a dialogue focused on the security issues and not only bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Romanian Defense Minister Nicolae Ciuca told the Washington Examiner in Bucharest Monday.

“I am seeing this as being a very good opportunity to discuss all these issues and to find the solutions for everything, which is concerning not only the leaders but also the normal people,” he added.

Ciuca underscored the “very powerful” message of support he heard when Biden spoke virtually to nine eastern flank NATO countries in May — the so-called “B-9” summit hosted by Romania.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Washington Examiner that his country has also been assured support by the Biden administration.

“We received a very clear assurance from the new administration that nothing will be agreed about Ukraine without Ukraine,” he said in a recent interview in Kyiv.

“Politically speaking, it just doesn't work this way,” he warned. “When you engage with Putin only, given everything that he did and all the damage that he caused, all the harm that he did to Ukraine, to democracy in the United States, and to security in many parts of the world.”

In a bipartisan visit by three U.S. senators to Kyiv last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky handed over a list of talking points he hoped Biden would address with the Russian leader.

Kuleba said last week that Biden should not meet Putin without first coordinating with Ukraine’s president. At the White House Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden had just spoken to Zelensky when he briefed reporters around midday.

"President Biden was able to tell President Zelensky that he will stand up firmly for Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and its aspirations as we go forward," Sullivan said at the daily White House press briefing.

In March, Putin massed 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Following united condemnation by the U.S., NATO, and others, Putin began a glacial withdraw that has removed just 10,000 troops in a month. [“Began” – key word. He did not finish and arms and equipment continue to be staged along the border with Ukraine. RAM]

“President Putin did all the mean things in this world, and he gets his rules, and he harvests his political fruits,” Kuleba said. “And you do not coordinate with Ukraine, that has been fighting against President Putin for seven years with a huge support coming from the United States?”

Ciuca agreed Russia’s serious actions require coordination with Black Sea neighbors.

“It's very important to consider an intensified dialogue and coordination in order to not let this situation escalate,” he said. “We have seen all those soldiers deployed in a very short period of time.”

Chess match

As America’s geopolitical security interests shift to the Indo-Pacific, Black Sea partners are worried that Russia will advance in a vacuum created by the U.S. Likewise, defense analysts point out broader U.S geopolitical interests involving Russia, including Syria, Libya, and across the African continent, that may force Biden to negotiate with Putin. [America’s geopolitical security interests did not shift to the Indo-Pacific. They may have expanded to include the Indo-Pacific to a greater degree, but critical security interests remain in the Black Sea region and beyond. To think Putin does not remain a major security risk would be beyond foolish. RAM]

“Russia is playing on a great chessboard, one game, it's a great game,” said Alexander Khara, a security analyst and former Ukrainian diplomat. “And the West is playing on different boards, its own games.”

The metaphor is to say that Putin has a consistent policy from the Arctic to Africa, inciting instability that keeps a buffer between him and the West.

He also plants anti-access area denial positions to threaten NATO and partner troops. Russian S-400 air defense systems are known to exist in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, in the Crimean peninsula, in Syria, and reportedly in Libya.

Khara describes these moves as “pushing the insecurity bubble towards the West.”

In response, the U.S. must negotiate with Russia to help solve security problems that analysts say Russia created. [“negotiate” with Putin – hello! You may have to talk to the little viper, but you have to know he only responds to what others want when force is used. To forget force is requires is the road so often followed to failure. RAM]

“We should stop Russia from doing this on the whole front,” Khara added. “Russians are preparing for global conflict, and this is global conflict, not with China and not with other powers, but with the West.”

Former Romanian National Security Council adviser George Scutaru sees the Biden-Putin summit as a repeat of the failed “Russia reset” attempted by former President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

“Did you receive something from Putin, tangible, to make these decisions? No. Putin is the same,” said Scutaru, now working for the New Strategy Center in Bucharest. “Insignificant steps by Putin and a huge move from the U.S. side.”

Scutaru and Khara fear the Black Sea region is now full of Russian pawns, conflicts that Russia can “help solve” in exchange for the U.S. retreating from other spheres of influence.

“There's two great powers making a deal, and who is paying these bills?” said Scutaru. “Us. The sphere of influence is here. OK? This is the gate. This is a buffer zone.”

Scutaru argues that instead of negotiating with Putin, Biden should strengthen military and economic ties with the Black Sea nations to deter Russia. [Here, here. And the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network has published its Priority Recommendations for U.S. Assistance to Ukraine 2021. RAM]

“What do you prefer?” he posed. “To fight with Russian on your territory or to work to try to contain the Russian influence?”

 

 

The original article was written by Abraham Mahshie, Defense Reporter, in the Washington Examiner. The parenthetical comments above are those of Mr. McConnell and do not necessarily reflect the views of the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Foundation's Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN).