The United States has asked Ukraine to be open to negotiations with Russia, according to a report that was likely carefully leaked by U.S. officials. Since no one in the U.S. administration is denying the report, it’s meant to be taken seriously by the Ukrainians. (Considering that the U.S. is not asking them to negotiate but only to be open to negotiating, it is nicely deniable.) Meanwhile, on Nov. 15, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden will both attend the G-20 summit in Indonesia. They will likely hold a meeting there, but if they don’t, it would send a message about as clear as a post-meeting press release. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been invited to the summit. He hasn’t confirmed if he will attend but initially indicated he would not. His presence would open him to face-to-face hostility, or at least frigidity, from many attendees. Therefore, if Putin decides to come, and for more than the canapes, he would be attending in the expectation of some benefit.
A refusal to meet paints a leader as inflexible and responsible for the tension. A willingness to meet creates an expectation of some progress. If there is none but neither side wants to burn bridges, a cheerily incoherent announcement will be made. If a major breakthrough is announced, everyone will be shocked. The details of any meeting will be worked out to the letter before Biden and Xi meet, and will be carefully leaked to test responses at home.
There are three major and generally hostile powers that may be at the meeting. The U.S. will be there wanting a low-cost breakthrough with Russia and China. The leak about Ukraine would seem to be an attempt to get Putin to the meeting. He hadn’t expected the leak so he didn’t plan on coming. One question will be whether he changes his mind and tries to end the war over Ukraine’s head. As for Xi and Biden, if they can’t even sit down and have a drink, it would indicate that at least one side can’t even set an agenda for the sake of appearances. And if Putin does come and ignores Xi, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.