Everything seems to indicate that there will be no reset in American-Russian relations. Joe Biden is sending Moscow more signals that he is breaking with the unwritten rule that has been in force for at least the last 25 years.
Biden Makes It Clear
It was the seventh conversation between the new U.S. president and the leader of another country. The extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty regarding nuclear weapons is the only treaty that Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have been able to work out. The head of the American state also emphasized cyberattacks on U.S. institutions, the question of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and above all, the attempted poisoning and the subsequent treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, issues which are a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Biden has said that the U.S. is prepared to defend itself and will undertake further actions that may include sanctions to show that Moscow cannot act with impunity. A few days later, he also commented on Navalny’s imprisonment. “The Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are a matter of deep concern to us and the international community.
“Mr. Navalny, like all Russian citizens, is entitled to his rights under the Russian constitution … He’s been targeted for exposing corruption and should be released immediately and without condition,” Biden said, stating that Washington will no longer remain silent in the face of “Russian aggressive actions.”
The Americans went further. For the first time, they are deploying B-1 bombers to Norway, where, within the next three weeks, they will start their mission over the Arctic Circle and in the international airspace off Russia’s northwest coast. This is a clear signal to Moscow that American troops will be active in the strategically important Arctic region, and that they will defend their allies in the area against Russian aggression near the countries’ border.
To date, military missions over the Arctic have taken place mainly from Great Britain. Positioning the forces much closer to Russia means that the U.S. will be able to respond more quickly to potential Kremlin aggression. Americans are clearly concerned with Moscow’s militarization of the Arctic region which aims to cut off other countries from potential access to the Arctic’s natural resources.
New President, New Deal
Biden’s efforts indicate a turnaround in American politics. New presidents have tried to improve relations with Russia at the start of their presidencies for years. Good intentions, however, usually ended up in a pile of diplomatic dirt.
Bill Clinton’s close relationship with Boris Yeltsin early on was buried by the war in Kosovo and American airstrikes on Yugoslavia in 1999, and then by the expansion of NATO in the same direction.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, began his presidency with an American-Russian alliance against international terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on New York City in 2001. Washington’s relations with Moscow didn’t survive a clash with political reality, and deteriorated after the decision to deploy the American anti-missile defense system in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland.
Barack Obama repeated the same pattern after he announced his administration’s reset in relations with Moscow in 2009, despite Russian aggression in Georgia in September 2008. The annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the war in Donbass, Ukraine, in 2014 buried the chances of a continued reset for good.
Democrats, who are usually more eager to cooperate with the Kremlin than Republicans, changed their attitude during the presidential campaign in 2016, when they accused Russians of interfering in their domestic affairs and in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The Democrats’ allegations, which tied Donald Trump’s close aides with Russia, as well as political pressure from Congress after information surfaced showing Russia meddled in the presidential election, meant that Trump would not seek to reset ties with Moscow. On the contrary, his policy was more explicit. This was manifested in military support for Ukraine and the eastern flank of NATO, and through the extension of sanctions on Russia.
However, the lack of any firm U.S. response to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, stepping aside from Russia in the Middle East, Navalny’s poisoning and deteriorating trans-Atlantic relations, as well as information about Kremlin interference in U.S. domestic affairs and the ties between Trump’s people and Moscow caused Biden to label President Trump “Putin’s puppy” during one of the 2020 presidential debates.
Why Is Biden Set To Clash with Putin?
There are a few reasons. First, he wants to avoid the traps that both he, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Obama’s vice president, and Obama himself fell into. The “reset” ultimately proved to be a huge mistake, which took its toll on how Obama’s foreign policy was perceived around the world, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. In practice, it meant considerable concessions to the Kremlin, which turned out to be an untrustworthy partner, especially after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass.
Biden’s recent moves are interesting, since he is aided by the people who were also Obama’s advisers. It is possible that this group, which learned from experience and the political gaffes of the past, will make better competitors for Russia and its leader, who feels at home on the international political chessboard.
Secondly, there are personal issues at stake that will lead to a tougher position on Russia than his predecessor’s administration took. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump attempted to humiliate Biden by implying that Biden and his son, Hunter, were guilty of corruption and foul play in Ukraine.
Trump claimed that when Biden was vice president, he engaged in corrupt activity related to Hunter’s employment by the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Trump promulgated a conspiracy theory chiefly to harm Biden’s presidential campaign.
Finally, Democrats, who are usually more willing to cooperate with the Kremlin than Republicans, changed their attitude during the struggle for the White House in 2016, alleging Russian interference in domestic affairs. The investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller confirmed earlier findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The findings primarily involved disinformation, and the theft and publication of the Democratic Party Committee’s email correspondence. Mueller failed to find proof of any cooperation between Trump and his campaign staff with Russia.
It looks like Biden knows the mistakes he made more than 10 years ago. We can see that today in his attitude toward Moscow. The question that remains is how long this will take, and whether Biden’s team will make any radical errors along the way.