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U.S. President Joe Biden holds virtual talks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin amid Western fears that Moscow plans to attack Ukraine, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens with other officials during a secure video call from the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, Dec. 7, 2021.HANDOUT/Reuters

It was hard to avoid thoughts of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the presidents of the United States and Russia met on Tuesday. Their “virtual summit” was ostensibly to resolve a looming military confrontation in which a large part of the Russian army has massed on the Ukrainian border and has made itself appear poised to invade within weeks. Ukraine has become a proxy war, Cold War-style, and this was the inevitable meeting of the men who hold the proxies.

Both Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin knew what they were doing in turning a complex European situation into what suddenly looks like a pure Washington-Moscow showdown. Mr. Putin has managed to draw the U.S. into the centre of Eastern European skirmishes that had previously been the purview of the European Union and Ukraine itself, and thus to portray himself within Russia as someone who is a strategic equal to the U.S. President.

Mr. Biden, stinging from the humiliations of the Afghanistan withdrawal and from Mr. Putin’s successful manipulation of U.S. elections, is attempting to be the democratic figure who averts a war, brings feuding European allies together and contains a menacing Russia.

Both presidents are also aware, however, that this is not the same as the Soviet-American showdowns of the 20th century – and the awkward stalemate resulting from this week’s summit reflects that mutual knowledge.

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Mr. Putin knows that Washington is not prepared to commit its military, either alone or through NATO, fully to Ukraine’s defence. He’s aware that Mr. Biden’s generals regard the risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan as a far more important priority and, after the Iraq-Afghanistan debacle, will not get caught in a two-conflict world again. Although the Russian president and his generals have repeatedly claimed that the massing of troops is necessary because an American-armed Ukraine is poised to attack Russia, this is self-evidently nonsense. He can safely poke at the border and stir up violent chaos there, as he has since 2014, because he knows that Ukraine is not really the U.S. puppet he claims it is.

Mr. Biden, meanwhile, knows that his Russian counterpart stands to gain a lot more by acting as if he’s about to march on Kiev, and in the process drawing the U.S. into the conflict, than by fully doing it. That’s partly political reality – a full-fledged retaking of Ukraine would be another quagmire for Moscow on the scale of its own 1980s Afghanistan catastrophe, but much more visible and expensive.

And such an invasion would also defy physical military reality: As a recent strategic analysis by a U.S. military figure showed, the Russian military, while extensive and well armed, is almost entirely dependent on railway-based deployment, which would make it difficult for any attack to reach far beyond Russia’s borders without a months-long pause. The idea of Moscow snapping up all of Ukraine as a sudden fait accompli, never mind the Baltic states or other former Soviet territories, is not a plausible threat. The only plausible strategic goal is more chaos.

The awkward fact that both leaders are aware of, but dare not mention, is that Ukraine is its own place. Mr. Biden’s peace strategy is built on $2.5-billion worth of high-tech arms supplied to Ukraine, but also on his hope that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will finally agree to submit to the humiliating terms of the Minsk peace process, which would give Russia some influence in the eastern Donbass region. Mr. Putin’s claims are built on the notion that Ukrainians are basically just Russians, and after another invasion would eventually be happy again with Moscow’s rule. Neither view reflects reality, and both leaders know they could end up stymied by the reality of a very independent, very European-minded, very unbiddable Ukraine.

At the moment, the short-term points go to Mr. Putin, for whom the mere appearance of a 1960s-style superpower conflict – in an era when Russia is very far from being a superpower – is a political win.

Mr. Biden is playing a longer game, and its success depends on whether the compromises he made on Tuesday really do end up creating a sustainable peace for Ukraine (never mind the question of whether Ukraine will ever get Crimea back). The American strategy also depends on whether the meeting produces a united response from Europe – and especially from Germany, which has been unwilling to punish Russia for its earlier attacks on Crimea and eastern Ukraine with meaningful sanctions. Key is Mr. Biden’s threat to have Europe cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia meddles with Ukraine again. Here, he is gambling that the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will be willing to harm Germany’s short-term financial and energy security in order to really punish Russia.

The wild card in this is the two presidents’ levels of desperation. Mr. Biden cannot endure another Afghanistan-scale failure. Mr. Putin has less to lose, but is betting his future on his image as a restorer of mythical Russian greatness. The difference between a symbolic proxy war and a real one can be found in the depths of that desperation.

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