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Reviews |  Putin gathers troops on the Ukrainian border.  Here’s how Biden can change a failing playbook.

But Moscow’s current military build-up has been accompanied by considerably harsher rhetoric in recent months, suggesting that this time is different. President Vladimir Putin may believe that Ukraine is at an inflection point and it is time to raise the stakes. The risk of a major war seems real enough to justify a new American approach. The current policy of threatening sanctions and strengthening Kiev may be morally justified, but it is highly unlikely to change Putin’s calculation. The Biden administration should come to terms with the unsatisfying reality that it is unlikely to be able to force Putin into de-escalation if he is determined to act. America’s leverage is limited.

Where the United States has significant leverage is with Ukraine – and that leverage is largely untapped. Rather than focusing solely on coercing Russia, the Biden administration should also push Kiev to take steps to implement its obligations under the Minsk II deal, which Ukraine has shown unwilling to do. to do since the agreement was negotiated six years ago. Ukrainian measures to comply with the agreement, flawed as it is, could in fact invite de-escalation from Russia and re-energize the languid peace process.

The threats against Ukraine implicit in the constitution of Russian troops are morally reprehensible and contrary to Moscow’s international commitments. But to avoid a war, persuading Kiev to take the first step might be our best hope.

Minsk II was a victorious peace, imposed mainly by Russia on Ukraine with cannon fire. Ukrainian forces had just been routed, and Germany and France were pushing to end the bloodshed. The terms of the agreement called on Kiev to delegate significant political powers to areas held by pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass, and even to negotiate with these rebels a “new constitution” which codified their special status. In return, Russian forces would withdraw and cede control of the border. While the details of the deal relate specifically to Donbass, there was a broad political settlement implicit in its terms: Ukraine achieved peace but had to grant constitutionally guaranteed leverage of influence to Russia’s rebel proxies, that Moscow could use to prevent Kiev from completely defecting. West.

But the market was never realized on the ground. Ukraine has resisted demands for the implementation of the political arrangements of Minsk II. For example, rather than adopting a new constitution codifying new powers for Russia’s allies in the Donbass, the Ukrainian parliament passed a constitutional amendment enshrining the strategic objective of NATO membership and NATO membership. EU. Russia has taken advantage of Ukraine’s slowness to justify its persistent refusal to fulfill its end of the bargain.

For nearly seven years, the simmering conflict seems to have reached a stable equilibrium. Neither side got what they wanted, but neither was willing to escalate to force the issue. At the same time, Ukraine has considerably deepened its integration into the European Union and NATO. While neither bloc is ready to offer the country full membership, both have de facto anchored Ukraine in their orbit. President Volodymyr Zelensky, despite campaigning for an end to the war, took an uncompromising stance, even calling for a review of Minsk II and demanding concrete promises on Ukraine’s NATO membership.

Now messages from Moscow suggest that the Kremlin is no longer prepared to tolerate this status quo. Over the past six months, Putin and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have published extremely inflammatory articles on Ukraine; the former questioned the foundations of an independent Ukrainian state, while the latter caustically dismissed the Ukrainian leadership as “ignorant and unreliable”.

For Moscow, the Donbass conflict has always been a means of achieving its ends: having leverage over Ukraine in order to limit its Western integration. As a former senior Russian official put it, “to get the Donbas but lose Ukraine would be a defeat for the Kremlin”. The current build-up of forces suggests that Moscow now believes defeat is imminent, unless it gets worse. Russia may well be ready to attack much deeper into Ukrainian territory and has the military capability to do so.

The consequences could be catastrophic. The Ukrainian armed forces stationed in the east would likely suffer heavy losses and the civilian population would suffer both directly from the fighting and indirectly from the inevitable economic implosion. European security would be significantly compromised, with NATO allies likely to demand additional US deployments and be reassured. The already limited prospects for US cooperation with Russia on any major issue on Biden’s agenda – from cybercrime to climate change – would fade altogether.

It may not be too late for the Biden administration to take the diplomatic initiative and negotiate arrangements to avoid a war. But to do that, he would have to rethink the basic carrot-and-stick formula that has characterized the American approach so far. The reality is that Ukraine depends on political, diplomatic, economic and military support from the West, and in particular from the United States. At key times, Washington has used this leverage, such as pressure from then-Vice President Biden in 2016 to sack Ukraine’s rogue chief prosecutor, an episode made famous during the first impeachment of the government. President Donald Trump.

But the United States has yet to use its influence to advance the Donbass conflict. He could, for example, ask Kiev to adopt the general amnesty requested by Minsk or push forward the constitutional amendments in Parliament, where they have been blocked since 2018. Washington has understandably been reluctant to do so in the past; Minsk represents the terms of Russia, imposed by armed aggression. To urge the victim, a good friend of the United States, to obey the aggressor is against American principles.

However, if Ukraine took visible steps on Minsk that it has so far refused to take, it would force Moscow to defuse itself, withdraw its forces from the border and return to the negotiating table. For Putin, the use of force is not an end in itself; if he can get some of what he wants without a war, he will probably take it. If Russia doesn’t pull out after Ukraine’s concessions, there would at least be a stronger Western consensus in favor of Kiev versus Moscow – and the concessions themselves could be overturned.

This would not completely resolve the conflict at large, but it could defuse the current crisis and avert a potential catastrophe. It could also revitalize the process of conflict resolution, especially if the United States became more directly involved alongside France and Germany.

If it were possible to force Russia to back down, such unsavory compromises would be pointless. But they are not, and they are. Russia has shown that it is ready to go very far in Ukraine, much further than the United States or the EU. Without a willingness to get Ukrainians to play ball on Minsk, the current policy of threatening consequences for Moscow and building support for Kiev may be insufficient to stop a war. Biden may also have to push Ukraine to take painful steps toward compromise in order to save it from calamity.

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