Russia Review | January 2021

Ananta Aspen Centre  |  

Overview

• Russia-and the Biden Administration
• The legacy of Obama & Trump 
• Initial signals and contacts
• US Coordination with allies on Russia
• Biden Administration and China: first steps
• Lavrov clarifies his remarks on the Indo-Pacific​​​​​​

Russia-and the Biden Administration

Over the past few months, this Review has recorded Russia’s expectations and apprehensions about the course of Russia-US relations under the Biden Administration. The return to office of officials who had occupied senior positions in the Obama-Biden Administration, which had overseen a major deterioration in the bilateral relationship after 2014, did not give the Russians any cause for cheer. Moreover, as Russian commentators have noted wryly, a strong line towards Russia is the only foreign policy direction on which there is bipartisan consensus in American politics. All the same, there may have been some relief at the advent of an Administration that promises a return to more orderly functioning and “orthodox” foreign policy behaviour, so that its actions are at least predictable.

The legacy of Obama & Trump

Four years ago, Russian media, academia and political circles openly rejoiced at the election of Donald Trump, expecting – as indicated by his campaign pronouncements and his initial appointments to the national security establishment – that he would arrest the downward spiral in bilateral relations, that was triggered by the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. These hopes were rapidly belied, as allegations of Russian interference in the US Presidential elections, and of the Trump campaign’s collusion in it, captured the political discourse in Washington. The Muller investigation, Congressional activism, criticism of Trump’s “deference” to Putin at their 2018 Helsinki Summit and other controversies and allegations effectively kept him constantly on the backfoot vis a vis Russia. In the event, the Trump Administration took a much harsher posture on Russia than its predecessors.

The outgoing Obama Administration had set the stage for this during its lame duck phase, reinforcing the already extensive sanctions regime, expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the US and initiating Congressional hearings on Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. The Trump Administration built on it with (according to Russian count) 46 rounds of sanctions against Russia. It presided over the harshest and most comprehensive secondary sanctions legislation in history (CAATSA) that envisaged sanctions (denial of business access to the US) against third parties (whether adversaries, friends or allies of the US) engaging in “significant” defence or energy cooperation with Russia.

Just as the outgoing Obama Administration had done – launching actions that would circumscribe the policy options of the incoming President – the Trump Administration took executive actions, until literally its last day in office, to further muddy the waters in US relations with Russia (and China).  

In sum, therefore, the Biden Administration inherited a US-Russia relationship at a new nadir, with an extraordinary range of primary and secondary sanctions, little direct dialogue (either bilateral or in the UN Security Council and other multilateral forums), collapse of most arms control arrangements, and military or political confrontation, through their proxies, across geographies from Venezuela to Afghanistan and from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan.

As for the President-elect himself, Russian expectations were tempered by recollection of his role in the Obama Administration and his known views on Russia, NATO, Ukraine, Syria and other international issues. His March 2020 article in Foreign Affairs echoed mainstream American views on countering Russian aggression and confronting its “kleptocratic, authoritarian system”. 

Initial signals and contacts

In one of her first briefings, the White House Press Secretary said that the President had ordered a review by the national security team of the various issues of concern relating to Russia. She specifically mentioned the poisoning and treatment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny; the cyber-hacks into computer networks of government, technology and telecom organizations, discovered in December and attributed to Russian agencies; the generic issue of election interference; and the curious input, from anonymous intelligence sources in mid-2020, about “bounties” promised by Russians to the Taliban to kill US and other coalition troops in Afghanistan. She said the President would decide on the course of action with Russia after the review was completed.

More direct messaging was done through a telephone conversation on January 26 between Presidents Biden and Putin. It followed a conversation between their two National Security Advisors, when they agreed to extend the tenure of the arms control treaty, new START, by another five years from February 2021. Since the original treaty provided for this extension, no Senate confirmation was required on the US side. The White House said that the Presidents also agreed (in their telephone conversation) to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and “emerging security issues”. President Biden “reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty” and raised all the issues of concern – Navalny, cyberattacks, bounties and election interference, asserting that the US “will act firmly in defence of its national interests”, in response to Russian actions that harm the US or its allies, while, at the same time, working with Russia on areas of mutual interest.

The Kremlin readout of the conversation broadly confirmed the contents, obviously with its own spin. It added that the Presidents discussed revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program and cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as in trade and investment.  

President Putin was said to have noted the “special responsibility” of the US and Russia for maintaining security and stability in the world (President Xi Jinping told President Biden two weeks later that China and the US had this special responsibility!). Putin also reiterated his long-standing offer to host a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5), with the somewhat specious argument that, having shouldered the responsibility for international peace and security for 75 years, the P5 should again take the lead in effectively addressing “today’s most burning issues”!

US Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov also had a telephone conversation, which appears to have covered much the same ground. In response to Blinken raising the Navalny case, Lavrov is said to have explained in detail the “need to respect the laws and the judicial system” of Russia, adding for good measure that the US also needs to ensure transparency in its legal procedures, as highlighted by the “persecution” of the protestors, who contested the results of the presidential election! The Russian MFA said both sides had agreed to find a way out of the restrictions on staffing and movements of their diplomatic and consular staff, which had been introduced progressively in the past four years. 

The sense from the US and Russian releases on the two conversations was that they had been frank, constructive and business-like. Both sides confirmed that they would continue these exchanges in a transparent manner.

There was no word about which side originated the call, but consistent with diplomatic practice in such cases, it could be surmised that the Russians would have conveyed through diplomatic channels the proposal for a congratulatory call, and the Americans would have sequenced the incoming calls to convey the appropriate message. In the event, the Russians should have been happy with their place in the queue. The Putin-Biden conversation was immediately after President Biden’s conversations with the two neighbours, Mexico and Canada, NATO allies France and Germany, and the NATO SG. The fact that the Biden-Xi telephone conversation was apparently much later in the queue would have been cause for quiet Russian satisfaction.

On the whole, Russia would have been cautiously satisfied with the content of the initial contacts with the Biden Administration: reasonably cordial exchanges between the Presidents, Foreign Ministers and NSAs within the first month; the unexpected surprise of an unconditional extension of new START, the prospect of dialogue on common concerns like climate change, JCPOA and strategic stability; and even a possibility of discussions on trade and investment. The warning that the US will act firmly on perceived threats to its interests, or those of its allies, is neither new nor unexpected. The two other factors that Russia would be looking at closely are how US-Europe collaboration on Russia takes shape and the course of US-China relations (which influence Russia’s international room for manoeuvre). 

US Coordination with allies on Russia

The Biden Administration has emphasized that, unlike its predecessor Administration, it would work “in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners”, including on issues related to Russia. The White House releases on the President’s telephone conversations with his European counterparts all mentioned Russia as one of the shared foreign policy priorities. In the past, Russia has exploited differences of approach between the US and EU, and divergences of approach among countries in the EU, to further its own interests; at other times, these divergences have thwarted Russian initiatives.

On the impasse in eastern Ukraine, the Franco-German initiative to expedite implementation of the Minsk Accords made some headway in 2020, when internal developments in the US, including the resignation of Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, had diverted US attention from the issue. However, as the Biden victory became imminent, progress stalled. Russian FM Lavrov has lambasted the French and the Germans for backtracking on their commitment to push for implementation of decisions taken at the Paris summit in December 2019 (see Review, 1/20). Meanwhile, German keenness has dimmed, after German labs’ diagnosis of Navalny’s poisoning. This has also revived calls in Germany for reviewing the Nordstream2 gas pipeline deal with Russia. Senior French officials have echoed this call. Poland and the Baltic countries have opposed letting Russia off the hook on Ukraine or Navalny and have continued their campaign against Nordstream2. Separately, there is a move to wrest the initiative in the Armenia-Azerbaijan political settlement from Russia (which had exploited the preoccupations of the other two Minsk Group co-chairs – France and the US – in November 2020 to broker a ceasefire and peacekeeping deal). Secretary Blinken discussed this with the Swedish Foreign Minister, the current chair of the OSCE. Russia-EU relations were further soured, when Russia expelled diplomats from Germany, Sweden, and Poland for allegedly joining public protests in Russian cities against the incarceration of Navalny. The three countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation.

It remains to be seen how closely Biden’s US will work with Europe in pursuing interests vis a vis Russia, and how the US will deal with the sharp divisions within Europe on the political, economic and energy approach to Russia. The quality of US-Europe cooperation and coordination on Ukraine, Belarus, Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus will be important determinants of Russia’s leverage in these areas.  

Biden Administration and China: first steps

Just as important for the Russians as the US signals on their bilateral relations are the signals on US-China relations. Even as they proclaim their close strategic partnership, each of Russia and China keeps a wary eye on the course of relations of the other with the US. In the runup to the inauguration, the Chinese media and officialdom were predicting that the Biden Administration would retain the pressure on Russia and temper some of the harsher Trump rhetoric on China. While the Biden Administration has eschewed the harsh rhetoric of Trump and his Secretary of State Pompeo, its statements and actions do not, as yet, validate China’s expectation. In his first foreign policy speech, President Biden said the US would “confront China’s economic abuses”; “counter its aggressive, coercive action”; and push back on its “attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance”. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary Blinken described the killing of Uyghurs in China as “genocide”; the White House later confirmed that he spoke for the Government. In perhaps the only case of a Biden Administration official publicly endorsing a Trump view, Blinken told the media that President Trump was right to take a tougher approach to China, though he did not go about it in the right way.

Secretary Blinken spoke on the telephone with Chinese Politburo member and Foreign Affairs head, Yang Jiechi on February 5, and the Biden-Xi Jinping telephone conversation finally took place a full two weeks after the Biden-Putin one. In both cases, the readouts from the US and Chinese sides looked like records of two entirely different conversations. The US readouts emphasized “coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and assertive actions in the region”, including toward Taiwan. They did add that the two leaders also exchanged views on shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation. In contrast, the Chinese releases portrayed both Xi and Yang lecturing their interlocutors on the importance of US-China relations for global peace and security, urging the US to “rectify” its recent mistakes and declaring that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet are China’s internal affairs, allowing no external interference.

Lavrov clarifies his remarks on the Indo-Pacific

The Review of 12/20 had covered Russian FM Lavrov’s remarks at the Russian International Affairs Council where, in a diatribe against the West, he described India as “an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy … trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies …”. The criticism in India of these insensitive remarks was extensive, including from a number of former diplomats familiar with India-Russia relations.

Responding to this criticism, Lavrov walked back on some of his comments, in a lengthy response on India-Russia relations to a question from Economic Times, at his traditional New Year media conference on the achievements of Russian diplomacy in the previous year.

Lavrov was generous in hyperbole about the bilateral relationship, saying India is one of Russia’s closest partners in the economy, innovations, high technology and military-technical cooperation, and there is close political coordination in the UN and BRICS. He described the SCO as a representative grouping (after the admission of India and Pakistan), which can promote “constructive, positive and stabilising ideas” for the Eurasian region and the Asia-Pacific. He also said the Russia-India-China trilateral grouping is an effective format, confirming the role of the three countries in promoting peace, stability and security in Asia and the world. Unfortunately, the SCO and RIC meetings (and the anodyne press releases after them) in 2020 did not bear out this assessment of the effectiveness of these formats (see Review, 6/20 & 9/20).

On the Indo-Pacific, he said Russia has discussed this with the top level and other levels in the Indian government and knows that India will not move Indo-Pacific cooperation “in a way that would be not positive and not constructive”. Moreover, if the strategy is divisive, “the wisdom of our countries will certainly prevail” and the “closest cooperation and partnership with India” will not be affected.

Lavrov acknowledged that this detailed response was meant to clear any misunderstandings with Indian friends, adding the Russia is doing its best to ensure that India and China, “our two great friends and brothers”, live in peace with one another. At the same time, he asserted that the Indo-Pacific is not “merely a terminological change”, since the West leaves out the entire western Indian Ocean from its definition and makes no secret of the fact that its strategy is aimed at “achieving stability in the South China Sea and containing China”. He said ASEAN is very concerned that this aggressive promotion of the Indo-Pacific concept will undermine its centrality in the Indo-Pacific Region, the East Asian Summit (EAS) and other such formats.

India’s effort to draw Russia into a meaningful dialogue on the Indo-Pacific is, therefore, very much work in progress. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla was in Moscow in February to take this dialogue forward.  In the ultimate analysis, Russia’s perspectives on Indo-Pacific initiatives will change only if it gets credible assurance that they are not targeted at Russia’s strategic interests, in addition to those of China.

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(The views expressed are personal)

The Author can be reached at raghavan.ps@gmail.com
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One Response

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