The U.S. president wants to set the rules of the game with the Kremlin from a position of strength in order to have a free hand in his confrontation with China.
Joe Biden is in no rush. On Tuesday, he had only his second conversation with the Russian leader since he took office. During the phone call, Biden proposed a summit with Vladimir Putin in the coming months. He wants to use the time he has until the summit to show his trump cards and to force concessions from Russia. It is clear that Biden’s intention is not to press a reset button on the relationship with Putin, unlike George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Ukraine and the Black Sea
Biden’s strongest trump card is Ukraine. Moscow itself has handed it to him, since Russia has amassed the largest buildup of troops in Donbas and Crimea since 2014. On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister, Dmytro Kuleba, in Brussels. Their main goal was to discuss Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO. Although it remains unlikely that Biden would return to Bush’s idea of accepting Kyiv into the alliance, such a threat to Russia, which would halt Putin’s plans of expanding the Russian empire, could be a strong advantage in negotiations with the Kremlin regarding the new rules of cooperation.
Biden also wants to set aside the “Normandy” format of talks with Russia, a format based on a long-dead agreement made in Minsk. This way, the U.S. would be ready to replace Germany and France in making concessions, which is an unpleasant prospect for Putin.
Another equally terrible prospect for Russia would be if the U.S strengthens its position on the Black Sea. To this end, Biden has begun negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Biden’s goal is to ensure that ship traffic in the Istanbul Canal, currently under construction, is not restricted by the 1936 Montreux Convention, as in the case of the Bosporus Strait. Meanwhile, two U.S. warships are due to enter the Black Sea on Thursday after a two-week delay.
In turn, Belarus is facing sanctions on nine petrochemical companies. These will bring the Russian ally to its knees, unless Alexander Lukashenko frees political prisoners by the end of April. Washington might order sanctions on Russia even sooner, in response to Russia’s cyberattack of a few months ago. The sanctions are to be followed by a U.S. cyberspace strike on Russia.*
Sanctions are hanging over Russia in connection with the consortium behind the construction of the Nord Stream 2 like the sword of Damocles. On Monday, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said that the U.S. would try to stop the $10 billion project, which is now 95% complete, by whatever means possible. Congress is also pushing for this decision.
At last, Biden, who froze Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal of one-third of U.S. troops from Germany, can increase the American contingent in Poland, the Baltic States and Romania. Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is pushing for this decision. It is worth pointing out that Biden has yet to contact President Andrzej Duda on this matter, a demonstration of his respect for and adherence to Poland’s rule of law.
Reinforcement and Withdrawal
How does Biden want to play his trump card? White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the goal is to build a “predictable” relationship with Russia. In order words, a relationship that would allow the U.S. to concentrate on the most important matter: confrontation with China. As a result, Washington hopes to free itself from the arms race with Moscow. Biden has already agreed to a five-year extension of the New START treaty to reduce nuclear ballistic missiles.
In turn, it is assumed that cooperation with the Kremlin regarding a halt of Iran’s nuclear program will save the U.S. from costly involvement in the Middle East. The plan to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, a war which claimed billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, is heading in the same direction. Moscow’s hostile response, however, might thwart Biden’s plans in that case, too.
What does Putin have to say? For now, he is keeping his trump cards close to his chest. Very possibly, he is waiting to see how much Biden needs Russia and what Moscow can gain from that. On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the possible date and place of a summit, stated that it is still “too early” to discuss the details, nor did he want to confirm whether Putin would accept the invitation.
The daily Kommersant newspaper in Russia believes that if the U.S. were to impose sanctions on Russia, the meeting would be out of the question. Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reassures us that the country is ready for the heaviest restrictions, such as disconnection from the SWIFT banking system. The first deputy head of the Central Bank, Olga Skorobogatova, said that Russia has already created its own card payment system, Mir. However, it is only available in Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Kremlin’s response also targeted Ukraine, blaming the West for the rise in tension. On Wednesday, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev even argued that the U.S. had sent “more than five military transport aircraft to Ukraine.” He also accused Ukraine of preparing a military operation to recover Crimea.
Helsinki and Vienna
Under the circumstances, Moscow is not returning Biden’s calls with any hope for a reset in relations with the United States. Pro-Kremlin political analyst Alexey Mukhin tells Rzeczpospolita that “It was nothing more than expected from the U.S., and Biden faked reaching out to Russia because he wants to incapacitate Putin in the Ukrainian matter. America’s goal is to prepare for the deployment of one or two military bases in Ukraine. There are, however, red lines, which, if crossed, might lead to much more serious consequences than back in 2014. Russian politicians expect nothing good from relations with the U.S.” However, he added that “Ukraine is not a sovereign state and we will solve its problems with help from Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Ankara. But not from Kyiv.”
So far, it is unknown not only if or when the summit will take place, but where. Immediately after his conversation with Biden, Putin called the president of Finland. Organizing the summit in Helsinki would refer back to many other summit meetings, such as the 1975 Brezhnev-Ford summit, where the Soviet Union acted on an equal footing with the United States. Whether the U.S. will accept such a gesture from a country with an economy 13 times smaller than its own remains unclear. If not, then Biden has an alternative option: the capital of Austria offered to host the summit, too.
*Editor’s note: The United States announced sanctions against Russia on April 15 in response to what it says are cyberattacks and other hostile acts.