How will US-Russian relations develop under Joe Biden and what will be the consequences for Europe? Will he make another attempt to embark on a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia, as he did as vice-president in the Obama administration? If so, what could it look like? What would be the chances of success this time? In an Open Letter American experts have urged a new start and advocated a ‘soft’ approach, but political analyst Hannes Adomeit almost excludes that Biden will follow their advice. The new president will in all likelihood take a tougher, more uncompromising line.
Biden and Putin have met several times, but relations always were reserved
To remind ourselves, on 7 February 2009 in his capacity as U.S. vice president, Biden delivered the Obama administration’s first major foreign policy speech to world leaders assembled at the annual Munich security conference. He declared that ‘It’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia'. Referring to Russia’s military intervention in Georgia and Russia’s resistance to its neighbours joining NATO, he said that Washington and Moscow could not agree on everything. But he added that the United States and Russia ‘can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide and they coincide in many places’.
The Obama-Biden attempt of resetting relations initially appeared to work. It included the New START Treaty for the reduction and limitation of strategic nuclear weapons; progress at the International Security Conference on Fissile Raw Material; Russian support for tough sanctions against Iran; the Iran nuclear deal with its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to dissuade the country from developing nuclear weapons; Russian abstention on the UN Security Council vote authorizing military intervention for humanitarian purposes in Libya; the creation of the Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan; Russian WTO accession; and US support for then president Dmitry Medvedev’s drive for the ‘modernisation’ of Russian society and the economy.
Despite its initial promise the reset ultimately failed. For any assessment as to the prospects of an improvement of US-Russian relations under president Biden it is essential to establish why this was the case.
Two opposing explanations
Explanations come in two versions. The first is that of the Kremlin and its followers abroad. Their narrative asserts that the U.S. reneged on guarantees not to expand NATO eastward; refused to treat Russia as an equal; withdrew from the ABM Treaty to gain strategic advantage; designed the U.S. missile defense program for the European theater to be directed against Russia; unilaterally used military force contrary to international law; abused Russia’s abstention in the UN to embark on regime change in Libya; interfered in Russian domestic politics while using double standards when criticizing the country for its alleged democracy deficit; and under the guise of democracy promotion pursued regime change in Russia and its sphere of interests. In short, according to the Kremlin, the blame for the reset failure rested squarely with the United States.
In the second, opposing explanation the reasons for the reset failure are to be found primarily in Russian domestic politics. They are said to rest in the increasingly authoritarian power elite’s perceived exigencies to prevent the erosion of its power in Russia and its self-declared sphere of interests.
Russian troops in Syria (picture ministry of Defense)
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2012-2014, has summarized the failure as follows: ‘I had become ambassador to advance the reset, and instead I presided over its demise. But it was not because we changed our policy. It was because Putin changed Russia’s. Putin had little enthusiasm for the reset — he didn’t believe in the win-win approach we’d developed with [then president Dmitry] Medvedev. Massive demonstrations [in December 2011] over a falsified parliamentary election [and then after the March 2012 presidential election] intensified Putin’s sentiment, since he blamed us for sparking those protests. The real drama in our relations came not from officials in the White House or the Kremlin but from common people demonstrating in the streets to demand greater freedoms and democratic rule in 2011 − in Egypt, Syria, Libya and then, at the end of the year, in Russia. Two years later, demonstrators again, this time in Ukraine, triggered further tensions in U.S.-Russia relations. Putin’s response to those events, first the annexation of Crimea and then intervention in support of insurgents in eastern Ukraine, ended for good our ability to cooperate and compelled Obama to revert to more coercive instruments to deal with Russia.’ (Excerpts from his book Cold War to Hot Peace and an article in The Washington Post, 05.11.2018).
The Trump debacle
The pattern of declared intent to achieve a substantial amelioration of U.S.-Russian relations and the failure for it to materialize was repeated after the election of Trump. Whereas the previous U.S. administrations had acted upon the position that Moscow and Washington bore a shared responsibility for the downturn in their relations, the 45th president put the blame exclusively on the Obama administration, specifically and vociferously on Hillary Clinton, foreign secretary in 2009-2013, and more generally on the Washington ‘swamp’, including the foreign and defence ministries and the beltway’s international affairs, foreign policy and Russia experts.
Little wonder that the Russian foreign and security establishment, ranging from Vyacheslav Nikonov to Putin and including its extreme nationalist and chauvinist exponents like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and dyed-in-the-wool anti-Western, neo-fascist and ‘Eurasian’ ideologues like Aleksandr Dugin, greeted Trump’s victory in the elections with unbridled enthusiasm.
However, in view of bipartisan consensus about Russia along with China being a threat to U.S. foreign policy and security interests, any semblance of improvement of the relationship with Russia was out of the question. If it needed any proof of this it came in the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017 that provided for further U.S. sanctions on Russia and that was adopted by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, with 419 - 3 votes in the House of Representatives and 98 - 2 in the Senate.
Thus, two and a half months after his inauguration and against the background of the U.S. military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump acknowledged that ‘we’re not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low’. White House national security adviser H. R. McMaster agreed and stated that relations with Russia were now at their ‘lowest point’. Putin also agreed. After US air strikes in Syria he deplored that ‘the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military side, has not improved but most likely worsened’.
To sum up, the governments of Obama-Biden and Trump had followed the pattern established by their predecessors, Bill Clinton in 1993 and George W. Bush in 2001: the expression of discontent with the state of affairs in US-Russian relations and the commitment to their improvement ultimately not only led nowhere but ended up in a deterioration of relations.
A new reset?
The germs of a new reset that might be attempted by the incoming BIden administration can perhaps be found in an Open Letter initiated by Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, 2014-2016; Thomas Graham, Senior Director for Russia, National Security Council staff, 2004-07; Fiona Hill, Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs, National Security Council staff, 2017-19; Jon Huntsman Jr., Ambassador to Russia, 2017-19; Robert Legvold, Columbia University; and Thomas R. Pickering, Ambassador to Russia, 1993-96.
The Letter was signed by U.S. 103 foreign policy, international security and intelligence professionals, most of whom with significant specialisation in Russian affairs. In fact, the signatories can be said to constitute the crème de la crème of Russian studies and previous policy makers on Russia. Most of them are known to this author, many of whom personally, and some of them are close friends. Due to the fact that several of the signatories served in the Obama-Biden administration and some may have advised Biden and his team during the 2020 electoral campaign, the Letter may provide some clues about the approaches to Moscow the new president may adopt.
Whereas the document for obvious reasons eschews the term ‘reset’, it nevertheless argues for it. To the surprise and consternation of this writer, notwithstanding the signatories’ assurances that they were not naïve (‘We go into this open-eyed’), both the diagnosis and the policy recommendations bear Trumpian euphemisms and call on U.S. policy makers, rather than the Kremlin, to change their tune. In fact, both the tone and the content of the document very much resemble the Aufrufe (appeals) of strident German critics of the Merkel government’s handling of German-Russian relations.
American troops in Latvia
The document contains five criticisms of U.S. government policy. It asserts that
− ‘U.S.-Russia relations are at a dangerous dead end that threatens the U.S. national interest. The risk of a military confrontation that could go nuclear is again real. We are drifting toward a fraught nuclear arms race, with our foreign-policy arsenal reduced mainly to reactions, sanctions, public shaming and congressional resolutions’ (these and subsequent italics mine).
− it is mistaken to base U.S. Russia policy on the premise that the strategic framework, within which the Kremlin operates, could and should be changed because that framework is ‘deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike. An eventual successor [to Putin], even one more democratically inclined, will likely operate within this same framework.’
− the U.S. government had failed sufficiently to talk to and negotiate with Russia policy makers. It too often wrongly considered ‘diplomatic contacts as a reward for good behavior’. It lacked fully functioning diplomatic relations because in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis ‘key governmental contacts were severed, consulates shuttered and embassy staff drastically reduced’.
− current U.S. policies ‘reinforce Russia’s readiness to align with the least constructive aspects of China’s U.S. policy.’
− ‘The steady accumulation of congressionally mandated sanctions as punishment for Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the poisoning in Salisbury, violations of the INF treaty and election meddling reduce any incentive Moscow might have to change course since it considers those sanctions permanent.’
The policy recommendations flowing from the criticism are exceedingly general. ‘We’, that is, the U.S. government, should ‘engage Russia through negotiations out of the public glare’; consider the restoration of normal diplomatic contacts a ‘top priority’; ‘engage Russia in a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility’; ‘restore U.S.-Russian leadership in managing a nuclear world made more dangerous’; move swiftly ‘to a next phase of arms control to strengthen nuclear stability’; ‘make safer and more stable the military standoff that cuts across Europe’s most unstable regions’; in conflicts such as Ukraine and Syria ‘pay more attention to the cumulative effect that measured and phased steps forward can have on the overall relationship’; and concerning ‘our sanctions regime, restore flexibility [by] focusing on targeted sanctions that can be eased quickly in exchange for Russian steps that advance negotiations toward acceptable resolutions of outstanding conflicts’.
On deaf ears with Biden
The incoming Biden administration will have little use for such generalities. And both the diagnosis of the ills in U.S.-Russian relations and the policy prescriptions suggested by the august assembly of the 103 for remedying them are fundamentally at odds with Biden’s positions prior to and during the presidential campaign. These make it highly likely that the de facto new Cold War will remain as cold as it is today.
That kind of development is made more probable by the less than auspicious personal ‘chemistry’ between the two leaders. In June 2001, essentially as a prelude to the upcoming reset, president Bush had flattered Putin by declaring publicly and in his presence that ‘I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul: a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.’
Biden spoke at the Ukrainian parliament on 8 December 2015
In stark contrast to that flattery, Biden recalled visiting Putin in the Kremlin in 2011 and saying: ‘''Mr. prime minister, I'm looking into your eyes, and I don't think you have a soul'. [Putin] looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, 'We understand one another'.’'
The likelihood that the tense and confrontational relationship between Biden’s Washington and Putin’s Russia will continue unabated or will even deepen is predicated on a number of factors, most of which aptly summarized by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. Biden has:
− been a longtime champion of NATO and has encouraged its expansion eastward, most recently with the accession of Montenegro. In 2009, he supported the so far unsuccessful ambitions of Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.
− called for an independent investigation into ‘Russia’s assault on American democracy’, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to examine how to deter Moscow’s ongoing efforts at disruption.
− tried to persuade the U.S’ European allies to invest more in NATO, which he says should forward deploy more troops to Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.
− taken the position that the United States and its European allies should strengthen their cyber infrastructure, close foreign-money loopholes, increase the transparency of online platforms, and better coordinate intelligence and law enforcement efforts.
− demanded that the United States and Europe ‘impose meaningful costs’ on Moscow for malignant behaviour.
− as vice president, advocated the dispatch of weapons to Ukraine to support the country’s efforts against the Russia-backed insurgency in its eastern territories, and during the electoral campaign said that U.S. military assistance to Ukraine should be increased to ensure that ‘Russia pays a heavier price’ for its interference.
− also in that role supported the sanctions the Obama administration levied against Russia after its 2014 annexation of the Crimea and invasion of Ukraine. During the campaign he confirmed that they should be continued and expanded as necessary.
− criticised Trump for failing to respond to intelligence reports that reportedly indicated Moscow was offering bounties to Taliban-linked militias to kill U.S. and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, calling it a ‘dereliction of duty’.
− reaffirmed his view, expressed in 2016, that Europe should strive for energy security and that Nord Stream 2 was a ‘fundamentally bad deal’, making it a safe bet that he would not oppose the new sanctions prepared by Congress targeting certification and insurers in an attempt to stop the gas pipeline project.
− opposed Trump’s advocacy for readmitting Russia to the Group of Seven, from which it was expelled after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
In contrast to previous reset attempts Biden now sees the ball firmly in the Russian court
In the past, including during the Cold War, arms control often proved to be an opener for a general improvement of U.S-Russian relations. True, Biden has supported extension of the New START treaty to reduce nuclear stockpiles. But it is doubtful that this stance is unconditional. He may stick to the proposal made by the Trump administration to extend the agreement for one year, conditioned upon more limits on Russia’s tactical nuclear warheads, which are not currently restricted by the treaty. Moscow has rejected the proposal.
The conclusion to be drawn from these individual positions is incontrovertible: In contrast to the previous reset attempts, which proceeded from the notion that changes in U.S. attitude and behavior were needed to move things forward and that compromises and a ‘strategic dialogue’ were appropriate instruments to that effect, Biden sees the ball firmly in the Russian court. Contrary to the appeal of the 103 Russia experts that ‘It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy’, Biden thinks that it’s time for the Kremlin to change its policies toward the United States.
He probably agrees with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney who recognized as early as 2012 that Russia had to be regarded as ‘geopolitical foe number one’. And he will, therefore, surely take seriously his own words that whereas China was a ‘competitor’ with whom rivalry could become ‘more serious’ in coming years, Putin’s Russia is a country that most ‘threatens the security’ of the United States and that to deal with this threat was not by accommodation and vacuous ‘dialogues’ but by vigorously confronting it.
The likelihood that Biden will adopt such an approach is high also when one looks at the appointments to high offices he has made thus far. That applies in particular to Antony Blinken, who held multiple foreign policy and national security roles in the Obama administration, including as national security adviser to vice president Biden and deputy foreign minister from 2015 to 2017, and who was now appointed foreign minister.
In an interview conducted in July 2017 six months after he had left office and reflecting on how to deal with Putin, Blinken thought that unless the Kremlin chief would stop ‘looking at the world through the zero-sum prism and trying to undermine the United States [and] Western Europe on a regular basis, unless he can be made to see that it actually is not going to be allowed, that there are going to be real consequences for it, he’ll continue, because every signal he’s getting is that it’s working, and he’s not paying a price for it.’