The Future of the Russia-U.S. Relations and the Anti-Russian Wing of the Biden Administration

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Immediately after President-elect Biden took office, the contours of U.S. policy towards Russia began to be outlined. It is noteworthy that the next day after taking office, Biden directed his intelligence chief Avril Haines to conduct a full review of alleged transgressions by Russian special services in recent months. According to the Washington Post, Haines has been charged with opening investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2020 election, the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, rumored Russian bounties placed on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and the hacking of government service provider SolarWinds.

It is also noteworthy that the first telephone conversation between Biden and Putin was rather tense. According to a White House press release, President Biden addressed the issue and made it clear that the United States will act resolutely in defense of its national interests in response to Russia’s actions that harm the United States or its allies.

 Biden’s political team structure, which includes figures who are famous for their tough stance towards Russia, deserves special attention.

Antony Blinken- The U.S. Secretary of State 

Biden has appointed Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. After working in Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, he spent a six-year term in the Senate as one of Biden’s top aides. Blinken worked as Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser in the Senate in 2002 and as a staff director on the foreign relations committee. After Obama picked Biden for Vice-President, Blinken returned to the White House. Blinken served in the Obama administration as Deputy National Security Adviser from 2013-2015 and Deputy Secretary of State from 2015-2017.

 In public statements and interviews in recent weeks, Blinken presented new aspects of Biden’s and his own agenda. After assuming the post, he expressed readiness to extend the “New START” agreement with Russia, from which Trump intended to leave. Blinken also showed a special approach to Ukraine-Russia relations during his career. It is no coincidence that Blinken’s appointment as Secretary of State was greeted with cautious optimism in Ukraine, where Blinken is seen as “a supporter of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression” and someone who has a deep understanding of post-Soviet geopolitical realities. Much of this Ukrainian enthusiasm is due to Blinken’s prior record during the Obama administration, where he played an influential role in imposing sanctions against Russia over the 2014 issue of Crimea. Subsequently, Blinken called on the United States to arm Ukraine so that Ukraine could defend itself against Russian aggression. Obama did not give the green light for deliveries of lethal weapons, though Trump did. However, Blinken’s assistance to Ukraine includes fighting corruption: “We have to help the Ukrainians deal with that too because even if we’re successful in at least helping them keep Russia at bay, if that threat from within continues, then it’s going to be very difficult for them to build a viable democracy.” 

As for NATO enlargement, Blinken’s approach to Georgia is interesting. In answering the question on NATO enlargement posed by the U.S. Senator Randal Paul during the Senate hearing to examine the nomination of Antony Blinken as U.S. Secretary of State, Blinken stated: “If a country like Georgia is able to meet the requirements of membership, and if it can contribute to Atlantic security, yes, the door should remain open.” In response, the Senator stated: “So if you are successful, then we would have a war with Russia now.” The Senator added that he would not support Georgia’s membership in NATO, as “Russia occupies Georgia, occupies proxy troops, occupies part of Ukraine. So I think adding either of them to NATO not only be provocative, you have to think about what comes next. It means if you are obligated to defend our NATO allies, we would be voting for war. So I would not vote that Georgia to NATO.” However, Blinken disagreed with the Senator’s opinion: “Actually, I think the opposite. I think with regard to NATO membership, there is a very good reason. Russia has proved aggressive against countries that are not actually in NATO and under the umbrella. We have seen in the past, the countries that have joined NATO have not been the same target of Russia.” 

Referring to the image of Russian President Putin, Anthony Blinken wrote in his article published in 2018: “If Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful man, conventional wisdom puts Vladimir Putin a close second. He’s made his own bare-chested virility synonymous with a resurgent Russia. Mr. Putin seems to be playing on every chessboard, from what Russia calls its “near abroad” to the Middle East, from Europe to America.”

In one of the interviews given in 2017, Blinken presented Putin and his policy in the following way: “We continued to believe until pretty late in the game that Mr. Putin’s interest and Russia’s interest was in deepening its integration with the international community, with the West….” “What we misjudged, at least in my judgment, until almost after the fact, was that Putin had gotten to the point where he had built this kleptocracy. That was the source of his power in Russia. Controlling the money, finding sources of money was absolutely essential to maintaining his hold on power, continuing to buy off elites. An integrated Russia that had to play by the rules that had to be transparent that had to be open was totally antithetical to sustaining that kleptocracy. The two things couldn’t go together. At a certain point, it became against Putin’s personal interest to actually pursue Russian integration because he couldn’t accept the rules, the transparency, the norms that come with that. That would undermine the kleptocracy that he was building. It took us a little while, I think, to figure that out. By that time, we really were in the zero-sum world where, from Moscow’s perspective, Russia’s strength was our weakness, and our gain was their loss.” According to Blinken, Putin “needs to be able to explain why Russia is having trouble at home, why its economy is stagnating, why it is not delivering for its own people.” Blinken considers that in answering these questions, it has become classic to point out another reason. “Whenever you’re, in one way or another, mismanaging your own country, you’ve got to point fingers somewhere else. He’s found it useful to point them at us and at the West.”

Blinken also recently referred to Russia’s arrest of Aleksei Navalny, saying it is a sign of “how frightened Vladimir Putin” is of the Kremlin critic. He also noted that the leading opposition figure speaks for “millions and millions of Russians” and that “their voice needs to be heard.”

William Burns- the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

William J. Burns is Joe Biden’s nominee for the position of CIA director. Burns joined the Foreign Service in 1982. He served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, and as a Russian speaker; he also served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Since 2011 Burns has been the Deputy Secretary of State. Burns retired in 2014 after a 33-year career in the Foreign Service. After his retirement from Foreign Service in 2015, Burns became the Carnegie Endowment president for International Peace; the oldest international affairs think tank in the United States. Though he has never worked in an intelligence agency, Burns regularly interacted with the intelligence community by being at the center of major foreign policy decisions.

Burns considers that it is the American leaders themselves that made Russia’s rise as a U.S. rival possible: “American leaders naively enabled the rise of our future rivals, thinking they’d be satisfied with a seat at our table, rather than displacing us at its head. The U.S. slowed NATO’s expansion to pacify Russian anxieties, only to see an ever more revanchist Russia get back on its feet.” 

Burns’s considerations about Russia and US-Russia relations are largely shaped by his attitude towards Vladimir Putin and his policy. Probably one of the reasons for such an attitude is explained in Burns’ book “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.” In 2005 when Burns handed his credentials as U.S. ambassador to president Putin, the latter said that “You Americans need to listen more. You can’t have everything your way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms”. In 2006 Burns was present during the meeting between the then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vladimir Putin, when Putin made them wait for 3 hours. A year later, in Burns’ words, Putin accused the U.S. embassy and American NGOs of “funneling money and support to critics of the Kremlin in the lead-up to the national elections.”

Speaking of Putin, later in an interview, Burns described him as “a very complicated personality” who “lives in a world in which the tough get to set the rules, and the weak get taken advantage of. He’s a cynic about people around him, and sometimes about his own population as well.” Burns considers that U.S. diplomatic response “needs to expose Mr. Putin’s vulnerabilities” the biggest of which is his “diplomatic loneliness” as “he has nothing close to the web of alliances and partnerships that have anchored the United States and its partners” who, however, “still sees plenty of opportunities to disrupt and subvert rival countries, the kind of tactics that can help a declining power sustain its status.”

In Burns’ view, Putin gave ample evidence that “Russia can be threatening in lots of different ways that matter to [U.S.], and to [U.S.] friends and allies, and to the international order.” Though President Obama viewed Russia only as a regional power, Burns believes that it is a mistake to be dismissive of the fact that it is a big region with 11 time zones and that “even as a declining power Russia can exert a fair amount of influence, often negative influence, on the landscape.” However, Russia’s role also should not be exaggerated.

During his testimony in Senate foreign relations committee, Burns expressed an opinion that “Russia is proving that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising ones…Vladimir Putin’s relentless focus for much of the past two decades has been to reverse the decline of the Russian state and its international standing- and the result is a Russia that sees its best bet for preserving its major power status in chipping away at the American-led international order.” However, in Burns’ view the U.S. should not “give up on the possibility of more stable relations with Russia beyond Putin.” 

Burns thinks that there should not be “illusions about grand bargains or strategic partnerships” with Russia as Putin views the world, Russia, and its role in it in a fundamentally different way than any American president. However, Russia cannot be ignored owing to its significant role in many issues.

Jake Sullivan- the National Security Advisor to U.S. President 

Jake Sullivan, now 44, was nominated for the position of National Security Adviser. Sullivan will be the youngest National Security Adviser in nearly 60 years. It was Sen. Amy Klobuchar who introduced him to Clinton, for whom he started working during her first run at the presidency in 2008. Mr. Sullivan was the Director of Policy Planning at the United States Department of State and Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Clinton. Following Hillary Clinton’s resignation as Secretary of State in 2013, Sullivan became National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. During the Presidential election of 2016, Jake Sullivan was Hillary Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser․ The latter partly explains why Sullivan is quite critical of the Russian president. Sullivans believes that it was Putin’s interference in the U.S. presidential elections that helped Trump win in the 2016 elections, though all predictions were claiming Hillary Clinton’s victory. 

When asked to describe Putin, in one of his interviews, Sullivan described him as a person who “conveys a huge amount through body language” and “tries to show you that he’s the alpha male in the room through the way he spreads his legs, through the way he slouches a bit in his chair, through the way that he will look at people and kind of give them a dismissive hand wave.”

Generally, Sullivan distinguishes two types of external threats to the U.S. In one group, he puts those threats that transcend national borders, such as the spread of weapons of mass destruction, deadly epidemics, climate change, another global economic meltdown, and massive cyberattacks. In the other group, Sullivan includes China and Russia, with the latter pursuing a “strategy to spread neofascist ideology and destabilize Western democracies.” Russia and China, in Sullivans’ view, are offering the world “an alternative, authoritarian path.” At the same time, Sullivan thinks that these two should be differentiated as they were in Barack Obama’s last strategy: the way Russia and China are addressed in Trump’s strategy risks “pushing Russia and China closer together, which prior Democratic and Republican administrations sought consciously to avoid.” Sullivan singles out a mix of three things that US-Russia relations have involved since the Cold War,

“1.cooperation on shared interests, 

2. tension and push and pull on divergent interests and  

3․the United States standing up for the Russian people in their effort to pursue a stronger civil society and a stronger democracy.” 

Speaking of current realities, Sullivan doubts that these two can be great partners in a global project and on some major issues: such belief will only end up in disappointment. Though Sullivan considers that Russia under Putin wants to undermine U.S. leadership, as well as the cohesion of Washington’s democratic allies, he thinks “Kremlin is a spoiler rather than an existential threat to the U.S..” The U.S. has to avoid not only “the trap of underestimating Putin, but also the temptation to overestimate him.” In another interview, Sullivan said that he believes Putin wants to do something he said publicly and this is to “reconstitute the sphere of influence that was in the Soviet Union”: “the examples of Georgia and Ukraine show that Putin is ready to use force to achieve that aim”, however “that means Central Asia, it means Caucuses, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and it means Eastern Europe. It means members of NATO who he believes rightly belong in the Russian sphere of influence.”

Another interesting signal from Sullivan was in his tweet on Aleksei Navalny’s arrest; “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable. The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.” 

This came less than two hours after Navalny was detained, and the statement from the U.S. Secretary of State followed a few hours later. The speed of Sullivan’s statement was itself unusual. 

Victoria Nuland- Nominee for Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs

Another diplomat, Victoria Nuland, was nominated as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Nuland has previously served in the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Nuland spent more than three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service and served under the Bush and Obama administration as a top Russian policy expert and representative to NATO, Ukraine, and Europe. After leaving the Obama administration, Nuland entered academia and the think tank world strictly criticizing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, specifically his appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More than simply an “Obama veteran,” Nuland played a significant role in the execution of the Obama administration’s Ukraine policies during and after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. In a broader sense, she has supported and facilitated Obama administration policies aimed at confronting, containing, and deterring Moscow across multiple policy fronts. Besides, Nuland was part of an international coalition, which included then-Vice President Joe Biden, that was pressing the post-Maidan Ukrainian government to root out corruption and make reforms. It is obvious that by appointing Victoria Nuland to a top State Department post, Biden is sending the clearest signal on the president-elect’s likely policy approach to Russia and Ukraine.   

Nuland’s leadership of U.S. support for the Maidan revolution in Ukraine made her the first high-profile victim of politically targeted phone hackings in 2014. As a response, Nuland claimed that she “had been the main interlocutor on the ground, trying to de-escalate the Maidan conflict so that the Ukrainians could find a way back to an association with Europe, and obviously Russia was trying to stop that. So if they could take me off the boards by discrediting me with either the Ukrainian opposition, the Europeans, or my own government, then that would be a good win for them. But interestingly, they just ended up raising my profile and strengthening me in the conversation.”

In her article published in the summer of 2020 in Foreign Affairs, Nuland made a number of political suggestions for the next President on how to deal with Russia, particularly mentioning that “Putin has played a weak hand well because the United States and its allies have let him.” Nuland explains this by the fact that Washington and its allies have forgotten the statecraft that won the Cold War. According to her, this strategy “required consistent U.S. leadership at the presidential level, unity with democratic allies and partners, and a shared resolve to deter and roll back dangerous behavior by the Kremlin.” According to Nuland, this strategy also includes incentives for Moscow to cooperate and, at times, direct appeals to the Russian people about the benefits of a better relationship. However, “that approach has fallen into disuse, even as Russia’s threat to the liberal world has grown.” In her article, Victoria Nuland also made suggestions for a new administration: “The first order of business, however, must be to mount a more unified and robust defense of the U.S. and allied security interests wherever Moscow challenges them…They should also resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they have paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.” According to her, many will think that this will change little inside Russia; however, she believes that U.S. interests will be better protected by this. “If Russia continues to stall, sanctions and other forms of political, economic, and military pressure should be increased.” Many of Nuland’s proposals enjoy widespread support throughout Biden’s assembled foreign policy team, and with President Biden too.

Thus, Biden administration members largely agree that Russia, despite not being an existential threat to the U.S., still should not be underestimated, especially following the events in Georgia and Ukraine. U.S. new administration members have no illusions about US-Russia grand cooperation, specifically under Russia’s current president. At the same time, the cooperation on shared interests is not excluded, a vivid example of this being the NEW START nuclear arms reduction treaty.

It is obvious that the USA-Russia competition will also continue during the Biden administration. The USA is trying to resist the expansion of Russia’s influence in all directions, including, of course, in the direction of the South Caucasus. This, in turn, means a more active role of the USA in the Minsk Group, the increase of funding for the implementation of projects in the region, and the utilization of other tools for the spread of influence.