As President, Biden has two rather pressing Putin-created problems to address.
The new US President has been off to a busy start. Within a fortnight of assuming office, the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden has re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement, reversed Trump’s ban on transgenders serving in the military, proposed the American Rescue Plan, lent impetus to the Buy American program and set in the motion the 1.5 million vaccinations a day initiative. While addressing a heavy domestic agenda remains his primary focus, diplomatic relations and foreign policy are part of the President’s job profile.
When US relations with other countries are under the scanner, Russia inevitably emerges as the top contender for attention. The troubled relations between the two countries since the Cold War era – and the delicate dance of maintaining a semblance of balance and geniality – has been no secret.
Ironically, the relations between the two countries have deteriorated even further in the last four years. Despite former President Donald Trump continually boasting about this chummy equation with Putin, and the latter having run an organized disinformation campaign that help put Trump in office in 2016. What course bilateral relations with Russia take with a new administration at the heal in Washington remains to be seen. If the first brief conversations between Biden and Putin as counterparts is any indicator, the two leaders are likely to err on the side of caution.
Biden’s ‘Putin’ Problem
As President, Biden has two rather pressing Putin-created problems to address. First and foremost, is the recent Russian cyber penetration where the perpetrators operating from US soil were successful in accessing data inside US institutions and related to infrastructure. And second, Russia’s covert and open attack on Western democracy as well as American relations with strategic allies during Trump’s term. The new US administration needs to confront Putin on these hostilities. Hopefully, without making the ties more confrontational and less cooperative.
Watch: Russia reportedly hits US with a massive cyberattack
Putin, for his part, sent out a clear signal on Russia’s outlook toward Biden’s presidency by waiting until the Electoral College confirmation before sending out a congratulatory message. According to Russian political commentator Konstantin Eggert, this is a classic Putin move. By holding off on congratulating the incoming President, he has – at least in his mind – taken a tough stance, letting Washington know that he is strong and willing to dig his heels in where need be.
Biden’s Aversion to Putin
President Joe Biden, too, has been unequivocally clear that he is not pro-Putin. While serving as Barack Obama’s vice-president, he admittedly once told Putin, ‘I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul’. During his presidential campaign too, Biden had called Putin a ‘thug’.
These differences notwithstanding, the two counterparts got on a call within Biden’s first week in office. With so much baggage on both sides, it’s anybody’s guess how the conversation may have played out. The briefs from both governments vis-à-vis this crucial first interaction have been markedly different.
Even so, both sides suggested that the US-Russia bilateral ties will be guided by the Biden administration’s desire to neither do harm nor repair existing damage. Biden is not particularly hopeful about a ‘reset’ in relations with Russia. He wants to focus on managing differences without resolving them or taking any concrete steps toward improving ties. The only tangible outcome of the conversation was an agreement to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty for another five years.
Other than that, Biden raised concerns over Russia’s role in a large-scale cyber-espionage campaign on US soil as well as bounties on American troops serving in Afghanistan. He also brought up the issue of key opposition figure Alexei Navalny being arrested in Russia.
The Kremlin remained more evasive about the details of the conversation, detailing that the leaders addressed ‘acute issues on the bilateral and international agenda’. The coronavirus pandemic, trade and economy, Ukraine and the Iran agreement were some of the issues that the Russian government spelled out vis-à-vis the phone call.
The talk has been described as ‘frank and business-like’ – diplomatic speak for tense conversations. Of course, not much can be achieved from a 58-second phone call between heads of two countries that have been at loggerheads for over three decades. It’d definitely help undercut some of the Trump-era ambivalence toward Russia.