Alexander Gabuev discusses Washington’s strategy on Russia.
Russia perceived Joe Biden’s new sanctions executive order, signed on April 15, as an unfriendly act. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Representative Maria Zakharova even called the order “an attempt to destroy bilateral relations”; other public figures in Russia did not hold back either. From the outside, it might seem that the order is just the path-breaking shot against Russia and others will follow suit, as happened before, during both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations.
Yet, a closer look suggests there is more nuance to this situation. Currently, all available data suggests that neither the U.S. political leadership nor American voters seem particularly preoccupied with foreign policy. They are much less interested in issues that go beyond climate change and competing with China.
For Biden, the priorities are: fighting COVID-19, ensuring economic recovery after the pandemic and alleviating polarization within American society.
Biden’s foreign policy team, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William J. Burns, and Victoria Nuland, who is currently serving as undersecretary of state for political affairs and considered an expert on Russia in the State Department, realize that the United States cannot solve problems with Russia within one presidential term. Furthermore, these issues are much less significant compared to the scale of the U.S. domestic crises and the rise of China. Considering all this, it is only logical to “freeze” the issue to avoid distraction from more crucial problems.
The current administration needed to implement the sanctions announced on April 15 to show media and critics in Congress that Biden has not turned a blind eye on problems with Russia and is going to respond to Moscow’s “bad behavior” that took place before Biden’s inauguration. At the same time, Biden’s administration fully understands that sanctions are not effective in influencing Russia’s behavior. Biden’s team does not intend to take radical steps such as imposing sanctions on “Rusal” or cutting Russia off from SWIFT.
Washington does not aim to fundamentally restore U.S.-Russian relations because it realizes it would be too difficult. Yet, Washington is willing to cooperate with Russia in areas where their interests overlap. That is why Biden did not wait too long before extending the New START; the U.S. and Russian diplomats continue their discussions on arms control and Iran. The main issue now is to draw mutual “red lines” that neither side will violate and to create communication channels necessary in cases of emergency. If Washington manages to maintain this approach and Moscow supports it, bilateral relations will not deteriorate. Thus, businesses can expect at least some stability and predictability concerning sanctions.