James Sherr OBE
June 29, 2021
‘I did what I came here to do’ is exactly what Ronald Reagan might have said. But whilst Reagan had a talent for making toughness sound affable, the challenge for Joseph Biden after his two and a half hour summit with Vladimir Putin on 16 June 2021 will be to persuade his home base, and Putin himself, that he will show toughness through deeds and substance. When he told the State Department on 5 February that ‘the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions are over’, he faced no such challenge. But Biden now has a credibility problem in both Washington and Moscow.
Before Joseph Biden became the 46th President of the United States, his opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was no less categorical than that of his incumbent rival, Donald Trump. In the weeks following Biden’s inauguration, his statements—and those of Anthony Blinken during his Senate confirmation hearing—were scarcely less categorical. Nothing therefore prepared the Senate for the abrupt turn from Blinken’s boilerplate endorsement of Congressional sanctions on 18 March to his statement on 19 May waiving sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG on grounds of ‘national interest’.1 The fact that this decision was announced on the day of Blinken’s pre-summit meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did the administration no favours. The equivocal end—more accurately, pause—to the military crisis on Ukraine’s land borders and the Black Sea does not seem to have enhanced the administration’s reputation either.
There has been no ‘reset’ by the Biden administration, but there will be no return to Reaganite clarity either. The United States no longer has the luxury of concentrating its formidable resources on Russia. Moreover, whilst the Soviet threat was more apocalyptic than the Russian threat, the latter is more insidious. It is based on money and backed by alliances with some of the most prominent business interests in Europe. Opposing the latter is deemed less important by the administration than preventing a Transatlantic divorce. Biden believes that by antagonising Europe, Trump weakened the United States. He is resolved that there will be no repetition.
Realism and Conjecture
Biden’s strategy towards Russia proceeds from these realities and assumptions. It consists of three elements.
The first is the leveraging of US global financial superiority against Russian regional military superiority.2 The ‘calibrated’ measures unveiled in April took sanctions onto
new territory; the administration believes that it has the means to crash the Russian economy if the warning is not heeded and its red lines are crossed.
The second is a good-faith offer to cooperate in areas of presumptive mutual interest. Arms limitation and climate change top this list but do not exhaust it. The art of the possible will be explored in working groups over the next three-to-six months.
The third is the revival of the Atlantic Alliance. The sequencing of Biden’s meetings —the London G7, the Brussels NATO summit and the Geneva summit with Putin — was plainly designed to produce a resounding display of Western unity, and US allies were only too happy to oblige. The primacy given to Russia in NATO’s communiqué and the unequivocal reiteration of its Bucharest commitments to Ukraine and Georgia were telling in themselves.3
This strategy is neither weak nor foolish. But it is built on conjecture rather than experience. Biden aspires to ‘some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by’. But for Putin, it is a matter of principle not to play by the rules of others. His policy is to look for red lines and subvert them by ridicule and asymmetric attack. If you ask him to stop kicking the table, he will start kicking the chair. If you say, there are sixteen no-go areas for cyber-attacks, he will attack the seventeenth. Those who want ‘proof’ that the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline was the seventeenth will be treated to an eighteenth and nineteenth.
When it comes to war and peace, ‘basic rules’ are no less conjectural. NATO will now consider treating ‘coordinated cyber-attack’ as an act of war. Why should Russia not treat crippling sanctions as an act of war?4 As Edward Luttwak noted many years ago, ‘if trade can be used as a weapon and sanctions used as a weapon, weapons can also be used as a weapon’. What military means underpin Western sanctions? The fact that this is an old-fashioned 20th century question does not mean that it will not be posed by Russia’s political and military leadership. If the answer with respect to non-NATO Ukraine is ‘none’, NATO risks being served with a brutal reminder that its deterrent ends at the Alliance’s borders.
A further point of conjecture concerns cooperation. So far, today’s Russian leadership has shown no interest in ‘mutual interests’. Dmitry Suslov’s view of prospects for cooperation over the Corona-19 virus has broader application: ‘the pandemic has not softened the [international] confrontation but has become one of its arenas’.5 Does Russia’s ready acceptance of Biden’s five-year extension of the START-2 accords stem from a belief in ‘strategic stability’ or from relief at being spared an arms race that it would be unlikely to win? Who will benefit if US support for Russia’s non-existent green revolution provides investment in Russia’s ailing industries and de facto sanctions relief? Whilst cooperation over the JCPOA paid off in 2015, can it be revived in today’s very different conditions?6 Even if it can, cooperation over any other matter concerning Iran is a non-starter, and cooperation over post-withdrawal Afghanistan is likely to produce some unpleasant surprises. If the pursuit of such ‘mutual interests’ generates good will in Washington, Moscow will not object; if it does not, tough.
But the heart of the difficulty lies in the incongruity between the US and Russian outlook. Normative antagonism does not lend itself to common rules. Russia believes that it is in an existential conflict with the West. It does not view this conflict through an algebraic tabulation of common and divergent interests, but through the prism of a world view that differs from that of the West in essence. Its view, based on multipolarity, ‘multiple values centres’, spheres of influence and ‘respect’, sets itself in opposition to the West’s supposed ‘universalism’ and ‘messianism’. Russia is not in ‘competition’ with the United States. It is seeking to displace the ‘rules-based order’ with a legal regime centred on the United Nations, a Russian veto and Russian co-management of global affairs. It knows it is an adversary and does not object to being called one. What it objects to is being ‘isolated’, lectured to and diminished.
If Putin was chastened or fettered by two and a half hours of ‘tough talk’ from Biden, he has shown no sign of it. In acknowledging Russia as a ‘great power’ at the start of the summit, Biden possibly wished to undo Obama’s slight seven years before: ‘Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbours, not out of strength but out of weakness.’7 Yet he accomplished more than that. If for Biden ‘great power’ connotes great responsibility, for Putin it connotes prerogatives. It is the language of Yalta and of US-Soviet bipolarity, not the language of the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter, the NATO-Ukraine Enhanced Opportunities Partnership and the NATO Brussels summit. By adopting the former language, Biden unwittingly diminished the force of the latter.
But as Konstantin Eggert notes, the summit signifies more than that. It marks ‘the beginning of the Putin regime’s exit from international isolation’.8 And since then, Putin has wasted no time. In response to Biden’s revival of Atlanticism, he has launched a fresh assault upon it. His article of 22 June in Die Zeit assigns every responsibility for the deterioration in relations between Russia and Europe not to the latter’s divisions, let alone Polish and Baltic intransigeance, but to the intrusions and dictates of the United States.9 The contrast with his article in June 2020 (which blamed Poland for the outbreak of the Second World War) could not be more pointed.10 Still more pointedly, Putin drew the obvious conclusion from the Geneva summit that Biden somehow missed. If it is now legitimate for the ‘leader of the free world’ to explore cooperation with Russia, why should Berlin and Paris not do so? Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron evidently drew the same conclusion, and their dramatic proposal to invite Putin to the EU summit swiftly followed. The fact that this sudden rupturing of a seven-year consensus was rebuffed by their European partners is less significant than the fact that it took place.
Were this not all, Russia wasted no time threatening the USA’s supposed surrogate, the United Kingdom, with direct hostilities. Whilst details of the encounter between HMS Defender and air and naval components of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on 23 June continue to be debated, they are secondary to two related points. First, as noted by Pavel Felgengauer, ‘the encounter seems to have been pre-planned and was apparently taken, ahead of time, at the highest level in Moscow’.11 Second, according to The
Netherlands Ministry of Defence, on the following day, Russian fighter jets repeatedly flew low over a Dutch navy frigate in the Black Sea and carried out ‘mock attacks.’12 As summarised by Pavel Baev: ‘The [summit] prompted the Russian head of state to test transatlantic ties even harder, assuming that they are long on discourse but short on substance’.13
These challenges to Western solidarity testify to a determination to test red lines and create new ones. They will not be papered over by Aesopian language. ‘Unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity’ is not the same as unwavering support for regaining it. The goals of the Biden administration not only create a contradiction with Russia but with itself. A ‘stable, predictable relationship’ might be consistent with preservation of the post-2014 status quo, but it is not consistent with reversing it. If words mean what they are supposed to mean, then US policy is predicated on change as much as Russia’s. Biden’s red lines appear to ignore this fact. They are ‘guard rails’ designed to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse; they do nothing to remedy it.
Vladimir Frolov’s conclusion is difficult to fault.14 The summit has created a peredyshka—a ‘breathing space’—not a basis for resolving the conflict in outlooks and ‘normative systems’ that define the current relationship. Barring a change in national elites and national interests, protivoborstvo—antagonism/confrontation—will continue to define this relationship. Until then, our one mutual interest will be to ensure that confrontation does not lead to conflict. From what already can be observed, the peredyshka does not promise to be deep or long-lasting.
1 ‘The Biden administration is committed to complying with that legislation’. ‘Nord Stream 2 and Potential Sanctionable Activity’, 18 March www.state.gov/nord-stream-2-and-potential-sanction…; ‘Nord Stream 2 and European Energy Security’, 19 May 2021.
2 See Nigel Gould-Davies, ‘With Russian-Western relations at a low, what pay-off for Putin?’, IISS, 5 May 2021 www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/05/russian-wester…
3 Brussels Summit Communiqué, 14 June 2021, para 68-69, www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm
4 Brussels Summit Communiqué, para 32.
5 Dmitry Suslov, Kommersant, 7 April 2020, www.kommersant.ru/doc/4315911
6 The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme was reached by the UN P5 plus Germany and Iran on 14 June 2015. The US announced its withdrawal from the agreement on 8 May 2018.
7 Julian Borger, ‘Russia is a regional power showing weakness over Ukraine’, The Guardian 25 May 2014, www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/25/barack-obama.
8 Konstantin Eggert, ‘Shall we thank Biden for this? Why Putin tries once again to detach Europe from America’ [Spasibo Bidenu za eto? Pochemu Putin vnov’ piytaetsya otorvat’ Evropu ot Ameriki] Snob.ru, 23 June 2021, snob.ru/entry/208105/.
9 Vladimir Putin’, Let’s be open despite the past’, Die Zeit 22 June 2021, reprinted by Ekho Moskviy [Byt’ otkrytiymi nesmotrya na proshloe], echo.msk.ru/blog/statya/2858936-echo/.
10 Vladimir Putin, ’75 years of Great Victory: Common responsibility before history and the future’ [75 let Velikoy Pobediy: obshchaya otvetstvennost’ pered istoriey i budushchim] 19 June 2020, Russian presidential website, kremlin.ru/events/president/news/63527.
11 Pavel Felgengauer, ‘Russia Bungles Pre-Planned Intercept of British Naval Vessel off Coast of Crimea’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 18, Issue 101, 24 June 2021.
12 ‘Dutch Navy: Russian jets flew low over frigate in Black Sea’, Associated Press, 29 June 2021.
13 Pavel Baev, ‘Russia Predictably Steps up Attacks on US European Unity’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 18, Issue 102, 28 June 2021.
14 Vladimir Frolov, ‘Respectful enmity. Summing up the Biden-Putin summit [Uvazhitel’naya vrazhdebnost’. Itogi sammita Bayden-Putin], Republic, 17 June 2021 republic.ru/posts/100743.