The US President has been vocal about his aversion towards Kremlin but could a Biden-Putin Summit resolve the differences?
- US President Joe Biden says Russia has “some responsibility” to address the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack by the criminal hacker gang, Darkside.
- Biden proposes a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin after expressing discontent over Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border.
- Washington’s aggressive stance on the Nordstream-2 Pipeline construction by Russia to Germany could hamper relations with other US allies.
US President Joe Biden on Monday stated that there was no real evidence to suggest that the Russian government was involved with the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack which resulted in the shut down of a major United States fuel pipeline, Colonial Pipeline, on Friday, May 7, 2021. The Colonial Pipeline, provides almost half of the gasoline and fuels used on the East Coast (all of its operations had to be shut down on Friday after hackers broke into some of its networks).
The US President did however say that the ‘actor’s ransomware was in Russia’, and the Russian government could not be totally absolved of any responsibility. Biden said that this issue would be raised with Putin during his meeting in June.
Biden’s Russia Policy
Biden’s measured response is a clear indicator, that he will take a strong stance vis-à-vis Moscow as was evident from the sanctions imposed by the US Treasury last month on Russian individuals and entities accused of interference in US elections, hacking campaigns, etc. A number of other steps were taken, such as the expulsion of Russian Diplomats and U.S. financial institutions were prohibited from buying Russian bonds directly from the Russian Central Bank, the Russian National Wealth Fund and the Ministry of Finance (this move was aimed to hit Russia economically, though many observers argue that it will not have much impact). Days earlier (April 13, 2021) in a conversation with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, the US President had made it clear that Washington would act in its national interest and would be compelled to respond to Russia’s actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference.
At the same time, both sides did speak about the need for United States and Russia to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a number of arms control and emerging security issues, building on the extension of the New START Treaty (days after taking over as US President, Biden had agreed to extend the New START treaty by five years). The US President during his conversation with Putin also proposed a meeting in a third country to resolve differences over important issues.
Biden understands, that a working relationship with Russia is essential, not just for working on global issues like Climate Change, Iran Nuclear agreement, etc, but also for ensuring that Moscow is not pushed further into Beijing’s arms (this argument had been made by a number of US strategic analysts). Days after Biden in a media interview in March 2021, called Putin a ‘killer’ the foreign ministers of Russia, Sergei Lavrov, and China, Wang Yi met in China and in their joint statement criticised US for meddling in the internal affairs of other countries on the pretext of democracy, while also emphasizing on the need for closer cooperation between both countries given the Biden Administration’s approach towards Russia and China.
Course correction by Biden
The US President’s call with Putin in April, and his measured statement on the colonial ransomware attack can be viewed as a course correction.
Watch: Biden proposes summit with Putin after Russia calls U.S. ‘adversary’ over Ukraine
Russia can’t afford escalation with US
Here it would be important to point out, that Russia too would not want tensions to rise further with the US. A working relationship with Washington would ensure that Beijing will not take Moscow for granted (in spite of the growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing, there are differences between both on a number of issues especially China’s increasing clout in Central Asia).
Significantly, on Tuesday, May 11, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that arms controls and security issues should be on the agenda of a possible meeting between Biden and Putin. The US has said that the modalities for such a meeting were being worked out.
Beyond the bilateral relationship: Why US allies would favor a working relationship
US can also not lose sight of the fact, that many US allies have close ties with Russia – economic and strategic – and Washington can not arm-twist allies beyond a point. US and Germany have differences over the Nordstream Pipeline (which would carry Russian gas to Europe). US has been pushing for stopping the construction of the pipeline.
A Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken on Nordstream Pipeline Project
Similarly, there have been differences over US and a number of countries including Turkey and India over the purchase of S400 missiles. While the Trump Administration during its last days in office had imposed sanctions on Turkey, Biden Administration has been warning India against the purchase of S400 missiles and stated that if India goes ahead with the purchase of the S400 it would be compelled to impose sanctions.
Strained relations with Moscow a Zero-Sum Game for the US
A less strained relationship between Russia and the US may reduce the pressure on US allies to rethink their relations with Moscow.
Washington would be advised to follow a more nuanced approach vis-à-vis Moscow, and Biden’s approach in recent weeks, where there is a focus on finding common ground on global issues and addressing differences through engagement, is important. A lot will also depend upon how Russia’s reaction to Biden’s overtures. A number of world capitals would also be closely observing how Washington-Moscow ties pan out over the next few months. Unlike Trump, Biden has proven that diplomacy is not just about personal equations, but about being firm, while keeping the door open for engagement.