How the relations between Russia and the United States will develop and why Putin and Biden will not be able to build them alone
Last week, the Russian ambassador to the United States announced his intention to save relations between the two countries from “falling into the abyss”. Another tension between the two powers arose after the harsh words of US President Joe Biden addressed to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Pavel Sharikov, Candidate of Political Sciences, the head of the Centre for Applied Research at the Institute of the USA and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences, discusses in the interview with Realnoe Vremya whether it is possible to remove tension in the near future and how, whether it is possible to restore relations between the two states under the new American president.
“The question about Putin was a provocation on the part of a journalist”
Mr Sharikov, can we say that Biden’s words are out of the ordinary and mean a new stage in the deterioration of relations between our states? Why did this happen in the first place?
Given that the relations between the United States and Russia have steadily continued to deteriorate since 2014, I do not see anything in Biden’s statement that radically changes the attitude of Americans and Washington’s approach to Moscow. Pay attention to how he gave this sensational answer. The journalist’s question was: “Do you personally know President Putin and do you consider him a killer?”, and Biden replied: “I do.”
Analysing American politics and the technologies that are used to present certain ideas, points or arguments to the US society, I come to the conclusion that he should have accused the leader of another country of murder much more gracefully. For example, to convene a press conference or to devote an entire event to this point with pictures, graphics, and so on. But Biden did it thoughtlessly — he did not think through what actions Moscow might take, what the escalation of relations would be, and how America would respond to it.
It seems that this statement was still accidental and was not made on purpose. I strongly doubt that these questions had been prepared in advance and discussed in advance with the president — yet in America, the communication of the authorities and the press is peculiar. Therefore, we can assume that the question about Putin was a provocation on the part of a journalist, and President Biden was just relaxed.
Besides, I would draw attention to the personality of journalist George Stephanopoulos — he is an experienced technologist and strategist of the Democratic Party, who worked closely with Bill Clinton. And when he talked to Biden, he felt like he was actually on home turf and didn’t expect any provocations. Besides, the president expected that this interview would be watched primarily by his supporters, so he was completely relaxed — and said exactly what his voters wanted to hear. It is unlikely that he expected an escalation from Moscow.
I would draw attention to the personality of journalist George Stephanopoulos — he is an experienced technologist and strategist of the Democratic Party, who worked closely with Bill Clinton
How will events develop now?
It is logical to assume that American political strategists and technologists, including those who work in the field of foreign policy, are trying, first of all, to consider the possibility of preventing any escalation in relations with Russia, especially military ones. Yes, now the ball is in Russia’s court — Ambassador Anatoly Antonov has been withdrawn from the United States. Of course, Moscow must somehow react — either with a strong statement, or with some other actions. But as far as we can judge from the current situation, the United States is not looking for an escalation of relations with Russia, because this may well be a form of military escalation. On the other hand, of course, there can be no conditions under which Biden would apologise or justify himself.
The situation is complicated, and I do not know how the US are going to solve it. But I hope that the decision will be reasonable and, perhaps, even joint. Although Putin’s idea of a live broadcast is somewhat emotional and, perhaps, not fully thought out, but some format of communication between the presidents would be appropriate.
“The story with personal sanctions will die by itself”
Do you understand what Russia can expect from Biden? After all, it all started well: there was already a conversation with Putin, an important START treaty was extended…
In my opinion, the extension of the New START treaty was not an end in itself, but a measure that gave the opportunity to preserve nuclear-strategic relations at a level that, if not completely, then at least partially satisfies both sides. After all, this is the only existing treaty between Russia and the United States in the nuclear sphere, which is very important in the current situation.
If you remember, there has been no ABM treaty for 20 years, the INF Treaty fell apart. The extension of New START is a certain amount of time during which it is possible to prepare both a new document and a new agreement, taking into account the new input. Therefore, we can’t say that by extending the New START, the Biden administration did everything that it wanted.
As for Biden’s overall foreign policy strategy, I think it’s too early to talk about it. Why? The entire team of the current US president has not yet been fully approved — after all, 1,000 or about 1,200 people of this team must be approved by the Senate. And these appointments do not always go easily and freely — after all, there are still Republicans in the Senate, and Democrats are forced to coordinate many candidates with them. For example, the CIA director was supposed to appoint William Burns, but this was actively opposed by Republican Ted Cruz, although Burns was approved. By the way, Burns as the director of the CIA is a very interesting figure. Some of our politicians associate certain hopes and prospects with his activities. After all, under Bush, Burns was appointed US ambassador to Moscow, and under Obama — to the second highest position in the State Department, and he was never caught on any provocations or openly Russophobic things. Burns is a highly respected man both in Moscow and in Washington. Although Burns is now the director of the CIA, and not a diplomat (which for him, perhaps, is also somewhat unexpected) — in my opinion, there are high hopes that his work will lead to some positive results.
But in February, we also saw the first anti-Russian sanctions from Mr. Biden…
Sanctions are already a kind of continuity for American presidents: starting with Obama, they were introduced by Trump. But Biden imposed, first of all, individual, personal sanctions. This is just a gesture, not an intention to harm Russia as a state.
Let me remind you that the toughest sanctions — against Russian industries (oil industry and energy industry) — were imposed only by Obama in 2014. Neither Trump nor Biden have imposed other tough sanctions on the Russian economy since then. After their actions, neither the ruble nor GDP collapsed, and this already shows that the current Biden sanctions are things of a different order.
Another thing is that American sanctions are a kind of tool to change the behaviour of a particular country. But already under Trump, it was obvious that sanctions could not change Russia’s behaviour, because Russia perceives them not as a factor influencing politics, but as something inevitable. Because of this, Moscow is not going to change its policy. Therefore, this tool has already exhausted its resource or is about to exhaust it. Well, whom else can personal sanctions be imposed on? I don’t know yet. Will there be an effect from those that have already been imposed? After all, their targets are people who will sooner or later leave their posts, and the new ones may lead a different policy. So, the story with personal sanctions will die by itself.
But Biden imposed, first of all, individual, personal sanctions. This is just a gesture, not an intention to harm Russia as a state
“The topic of Navalny will undoubtedly be on Biden’s agenda”
But let’s get back to Biden’s strategy in relation to Russia. Can something already clear be seen in his policy in the Russian direction?
We will see some consistent actions on the basis of which it will be possible to judge what the ultimate goal of Biden’s policy towards Russia is in about six months. But since events are developing rapidly now, it is important to see not the formation of the US strategy in foreign policy, but their response to some incidents, episodes that occur on the world stage with the participation of Russia almost constantly.
I think that there are no attempts on the part of the United States to eliminate the current Russian government or appoint a leader who would pursue a policy favourable to America. In Washington, they understand that President Putin, or, as they sometimes say, “Putin’s regime”, is a kind of constant that they have to deal with.
An example of this is how cautiously the current US administration behaves in relation to the Russian non-systemic opposition. For example, the oppositionists release high-profile material, but there is no immediate reaction from Washington to it, and this already indicates that it doesn’t matter whether America likes Putin or not, they need to deal with him. But how — this is what they will soon have to decide. Biden called it the ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time” — to maintain differences on some issues, but to interact and even cooperate on others.
But does the topic of Alexei Navalny, because of which the latest sanctions have been imposed, still attract the close attention of the American administration?
The topic of Navalny will undoubtedly be on Biden’s agenda. But these are already two topics. The first is about human rights in Russia and the suppression of political competition, and the second is about chemical weapons. The sanctions that were imposed by Biden were specifically related to chemical weapons. But concerning the topic of human rights, Washington in the case of Navalny has not yet gone beyond declarations. Trump did not mention this at all, although it seems to me that at the beginning of 2000, such situation would have been perceived by Washington as egregious and out of the ordinary.
“Now both parties in the United States are categorically opposed to Russia”
When Barack Obama came to power in the United States, Joe Biden, as vice president, was the author of the famous Reset. A Reset 2 is already unrealistic? After all, Biden is now the head of the state himself.
No, of course — no reset is yet in sight. In the old film about political strategists, Wag the Dog, to distract attention from domestic political problems, a politician hired a Hollywood director to shoot reports about America’s victory in a “little victorious” war. But in fact, there was no war. In the same spirit, both Russia and the United States could demonstrate cooperation in some absolutely non-political sphere — that, they say, we insult each other, but nevertheless, despite formal grievances, we can interact and coexist together.
If seriously speaking — there are recent examples of anti-terrorist cooperation between our countries. Since the beginning of the 2000s, cooperation in this area has been the most intense. It could even be called a military alliance — after all, Russia provided territory for the transit of American troops and equipment, and repaired American helicopters and much more. Would anyone say that the terrorist problem has been solved, that all the terrorists have been eliminated?
Are our countries losing a lot from the deterioration of relations?
Let me remind you that after the start of the reset, Russia and the United States created many commissions that solved various issues. But now we have no other interactions other than military ones. Of course, our countries are losing a lot — first of all, it concerns investment, and to fix this, we need political will on both sides. If it had been demonstrated, I think the political circles would have been less aggressive towards each other.
But recently, Lavrov has visited China, and Russia is actively cooperating with China against America. It is obvious that this gesture is perceived by Washington as unfriendly. On the other hand, there are no voices in the domestic policy of the United States that would rationally advocate the normalisation of relations with Moscow. But even in Soviet times, there were some ultra-left democrats like Bernie Sanders, who sympathised with the world communist movement, and it was through them that the USSR communicated with the entire American political system. At that time, many decisions were influenced and lobbied for. But now both parties in the United States are categorically opposed to Russia. And if 10 years ago American politicians had the sense to ratify the START Treaty, now many senators who voted for the treaty say that it is difficult, impossible and unnecessary to negotiate with us. The reason for this is the year 2014 and Russia’s accusations of interference in the 2016 elections.
If 10 years ago American politicians had the sense to ratify the START Treaty, now many senators who voted for the treaty say that it is difficult, impossible and unnecessary to negotiate with us.
“It is impossible to reduce all relations to presidents”
Can the presidents themselves change the situation and meet each other halfway?
No, of course — it is impossible to reduce all relations to presidents. When we reduced all policy with America to this, it was our mistake — we projected our system on the United States and thought that by reaching some agreements at the level of the presidents we would be able to achieve some results. But it’s not like that.
To build a relationship with America, we need to work not only with the president, but with many other actors. These are the chambers of Congress, parties, and circles of interest — lobbying structures, economic organisations. With them, Russia can promote its interests, offer them something non-political at various levels.
Besides, we need to be active with the United States at the regional level — at the level of states: when a decision is taken by Congress, state representatives vote for it. And these representatives can represent the interests of many serious people. It is quite possible that some Russian structures can satisfy these interests. I think that this approach would be very promising for our policy.
Can we conclude that improving relations with the United States is not a matter of a couple of years?
It may be a matter of decades! In the current situation, nothing can be done quickly. But as the Americans joke, they have an election campaign going on in their country at any given time, and during it, politicians use a variety of arguments to ensure their victory. And this shouldn’t be forgotten, too.
Of course, we should pay attention to that in the Joe Biden administration, many people who worked in Russia, studied it. And this is a signal that it is quite possible to expect some kind of constructive approach from the American side. Of course, one should not be under any illusions when we see an interesting appointment, one should not look for any positive in it. One must admit that there is no positive, and it is unlikely that it will appear in the near future without efforts on our part. A lot depends on us — Russia’s big problem is that we can’t convey to the Americans the arguments that seem obvious to us! For example, we need to clearly tell the Americans that Russia has no plans for an armed takeover of the territories of the former Soviet Union.
Well, do not forget — relations with America have been deteriorating since 2014, and our economy has only been sagging since then, and so far the problems are not being solved. What countries need to do now to improve relations is a tough question, but one cannot disagree with Trump: good relations are still better than bad ones.
By Sergey Kochnev