It is even more complex than one could have feared. Now that we know, because he said so himself, that the pressure Vladimir Putin is exerting on the Ukrainian borders is intended to obtain assurances from the United States that Ukraine will never join the Atlantic Alliance, it is even more difficult to see how this crisis could avoid turning into a war.
The situation is appalling because everyone would lose from it. Russia would lose not only men and the cost of a conflict, but also the financial income it expects from the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the commissioning of which would be postponed indefinitely due to a Russian offensive against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin would lose out because, whatever form it takes, this offensive would hardly be applauded by the Russians, whose standard of living is steadily decreasing and who certainly do not wish to add the deaths of a war to those of Covid-19 and, above all, to have to suffer from the new sanctions that the European Union and the United States would impose.
The economy of Germany and many other EU countries would lose out because it would be difficult, not impossible but expensive and complicated, to find substitutes for Russian gas. Ukraine would lose out because it is neither rich enough nor stable enough to face the Russian army without risks and damages. Finally, the United States and its president would lose out because they would obviously gladly pass up the chance of having to open a Russian front while all their diplomatic and military resources are mobilized by the competition with China and the growing military pressure it exerts on Taiwan.
If it were to break out, this conflict would reach the highest levels of strategic stupidity. It would even surpass them, since France and Germany are opposed to Ukraine’s entry into the NATO and have all the means to block it, but the fact is that there is no longer anything improbable about a war, since the Russian president has publicly conditioned the end of Russian mobilization on Ukraine’s borders on a commitment that Joe Biden cannot make.
As President of the United States, Joe Biden cannot act as if he alone were to decide who can or cannot join the Atlantic Alliance, let alone withdraw a Ukrainian candidacy instead of Ukraine.
If he were to do so, the entire Republican Party and a very large part of the Democrats would reproach him for kneeling before this blackmail by the Russian president. Not only would he demonetize himself a year before the mid-term elections, but he would also humiliate the United States, whose credibility would be severely diminished in Europe and, even more seriously, in Asia.
What Vladimir Putin demands of him, Joe Biden cannot and will not give him.
The Russian president has thus put himself in the position of having to back down after having set the bar too high, or to engage in a war that he would come out of badly since he would not win it in two hours against a Ukrainian army that has now become battle-hardened; since the territories that he would end up taking would seriously increase his budget deficits; since he would weld together the European Union against him, and since the outcome of this operation would be largely negative on his domestic scene.
It will be said, for the sake of politeness, that Vladimir Putin has not shown himself to be very clever. He has behaved like a rookie in international relations or like a man so much on his last legs that he no longer knows what he is doing.
In any case, he has put European stability at risk and the only way to prevent this crisis from getting too out of hand would be to ask him what guarantees of non-interference he could give to Ukraine after annexing Crimea and occupying the Donbass. In other words, it is urgent to try to open a global negotiation on the conditions for respecting European borders.