One of the downside risks of President Biden’s decision to invite Vladimir Putin to a summit in Geneva was that it created a permission structure for European allies who would want to orchestrate similar meetings with the Russian leader. “If the Americans are taking the initiative to speak to Putin, why can’t Europe?” as one European diplomat told the Financial Times. On Wednesday, the leaders of Germany and France did just that, proposing that the EU hold a summit with Putin. The timing of the overture from Berlin and Paris was less than ideal.
The same day the Germans and French proposed a summit with Putin, Russian vessels and military aircraft threatened a British warship, the HMS Defender, traveling in the Black Sea. The Defender was carrying out a preannounced “innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law,” according to the British government. Russia claims these waters as part of its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, rights that the vast majority of the international community reject. Reports vary over whether Russian forces fired warning shots at the British vessel— the Brits flatly deny their vessel was fired upon— but the incident underscores the threat Putin’s military poses to Ukraine, including efforts to prevent access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.
To their enormous credit, the Brits— in contrast to the United States, which canceled plans for two warships to enter the Black Sea in April just as Russia was beefing up its military presence along the border with Ukraine— put some muscle behind their support of Ukraine. Their prompt and robust denial that shots were fired also had the benefit of contesting the Russian narrative and effort to dominate the information space.
Instead of an EU invitation to meet with Putin, NATO should convene an emergency session to discuss this latest incident and take a firm stand in support of British efforts. It was just last week, after all, that NATO, in its communique, stated, “We call on Russia to reverse its military build-up and stop restricting navigation in parts of the Black Sea. We also call on Russia to stop impeding access to the Sea of Azov and Ukrainian ports. … We have increased our contributions … on land, at sea, and in the air in the Black Sea region, and we remain committed to its full implementation.”