Biden and Putin break the ice

Vice President Joe Biden (L) greets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) at the Russian White House, in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. 

Six days into the Joe Biden presidency, the first telephone conversation between POTUS and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin took place on Tuesday. Who took the initiative remains a tantalising detail, given the tense Russian-American relationship and the poor personal chemistry between the two leaders who are known to each other for a decade. But the important thing is, neither was interested in oneupmanship. 

Their only meeting so far, ten years ago in Moscow in March 2011, came amid then US President Barack Obama’s push to reset relations with Russia, which of course, met with sudden death after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. They never met again. 

Biden disclosed in an interview subsequently with the New Yorker magazine that he told the then Russian prime minister, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Whereupon, Biden recounted, Putin looked back, smiled, and replied, “We understand one another.” 

Biden and Putin are both seasoned war horses, and, curiously, have much in common. Biden brings into the presidency nearly half a century of foreign policy experience, making him one of the most seasoned practitioners of diplomacy ever elected president in the US. 

On his part, Putin too has held the levers of power as Russia’s helmsman ever since Boris Yeltsin brought him over from St. Petersburg to Moscow, into the Kremlin, in 1999. Putin is by far the most experienced statesman today among his peer group in the cloistered colosseum of big-power diplomacy.

No doubt, the unfolding Biden-Putin tango promises to be riveting. Both statesmen possess a cultivated pugnacious style which they keep in reserve and can at will bring into play, and despite the mutual distrust in Russian-American relations, they are proponents of detente, quintessentially, who take their mission deadly seriously. 

Indeed, their conversation may have shifted phenomenally since the cold war but the decades of policy experience they bring in still remains relevant. It may sound a paradox but if a chance for a new relationship with Russia exists, it really stands a better chance of coming with Biden and Putin navigating the choppy waters. 

To be sure, the readouts of Tuesday’s conversation from the White House and the Kremlin — here and here — bring out the flavour of the US-Russia relationship, fractured after four years of incessant battering by the anti-Trump faction in American politics and the so-called “Deep State” in the Beltway. 

Where the two readouts agree is in their convergence on the imperative need for extension of the new START for a 5-year period and on the criticality of strategic stability discussions in the period ahead. Significantly, Putin also maintains that arms control and global security and stability stand to gain out of the normalisation of relations between the two countries. In a similar vein, the Kremlin readout went on to reveal that Putin and Biden “discussed vital bilateral and international issues as well as opportunities to cooperate in countering such serious problems as the coronavirus pandemic, and in other areas, including trade and the economy”. 

However, the American side wouldn’t want to be seen going that far, as that might convey an impression that a constructive US-Russian engagement is on the anvil. For the Biden administration, any perceptions of positive tidings in the bilateral relationship are to be strictly avoided at this point. 

An element of grandstanding might be there insofar as Russia is a toxic subject in the US at present, and the primary responsibility for that lies with the Democrats who exploited the spectre of “Russia collusion” to wage a war of attrition against Donald Trump in which they’ve come out on top. But, it is too early for Biden to order a rollback, leave alone a US-Russia reset.

As Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged in this confirmation hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, the Biden administration identifies with the 2018 US National Defence Strategy, which characterises Russia (and China) in adversarial terms as a revisionist power that the US must counter. 

Suffice to say, the Biden administration would prefer to hold on to the equities in hand that provide the raison d’être for a tough policy toward Russia. Moscow is well aware of this reality. The former Russian president and top Kremlin politician Dmitry Medvedev recently wrote in an op-ed in Tass, 

“Biden has not yet said anything positive about Russia. On the contrary, his rhetoric has always been openly unfriendly, harsh, even aggressive. He has repeatedly stated that “Russia is the biggest threat to the United States in terms of undermining our security and alliances.” Nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, the Democrats’ team includes politicians who hold similar views and have no interest whatsoever in improving relations between Moscow and Washington.” 

“Russia, on the contrary, is ready to work with any US president, ready to restore cooperation in a wide range of areas. However, we can hardly expect any reciprocal steps from the new American administration. Our relations are likely to remain extremely cold in the coming years. And right now we do not expect anything but the continuation of a tough anti-Russian policy. But perhaps Biden will revisit the issues still on our joint agenda, for example arms control.” 

Clearly, any residual hope in the Kremlin would be that at some point, Biden will take up a “joint agenda” with Putin. Presently, though, the White House readout is even reluctant to admit that Biden and Putin “reviewed” the Iran nuclear issue — although it is no secret that Washington can use some Russian help to cut the Gordian knot. Among the big powers, Russia is uniquely placed in its ability to leverage the Iranian stance. 

In fact, coincidence or not, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held consultations in Moscow on January 26 with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, just a few hours before the phone conversation between Putin and Biden. The Iran nuclear issue figured in Zarif’s discussions with Lavrov, as the opening remarks by the latter to “Dear Javad” highlight in no uncertain terms. 

The White House surely kept track of Zarif’s visit to Moscow. And it is entirely conceivable that Putin would have briefed Biden on the Iranian thinking. Moscow is playing a helpful role. Lavrov referred at the media briefing in Moscow yesterday to “the announcement of the new President’s (Biden’s) intention to fully observe the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme.” 

Lavrov added, “If this takes place, we will only welcome it. The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation have emphasised more than once that all signatories to the JCPOA approved by the UN Security Council must resume the fulfilment of their commitments. If this happens –and we believe we will achieve this result — relations between our countries will only benefit…” 

However, the White House readout contrives to project that the US is hanging tough on Russia. This stems partly due to the chaotic situation in the US at present following the Capitol Riots and a multi-faceted national crisis of unprecedented proportions — the pandemic, stalled economy, societal disarray, etc. 

Thus, the White House readout underscores that “President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. He also raised other matters of concern, including the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 United States election, and the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny. President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies.”

Interestingly, the White House readout refers to the case of the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny as a case of “poisoning”. But, what about Navalny’s detention? But then, arguably, what if tomorrow, Moscow hits back by wading into Trump’s impeachment? At any rate, the European Union is tamping down tensions over Navalny. The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is visiting Moscow next week on February 4-5. (See the report in EU Observer titled Business as usual for EU and Russia, despite Navalny?) 

The main challenge for the new US administration is going to be that it should endeavour to carry the European allies along in its Russia policies. The transatlantic partnership being the anchor sheet of of Biden’s foreign policies, Washington cannot afford to ignore the reality that the European countries do not seek any confrontation with Russia  — especially Germany and France. All things considered, therefore, Biden and Putin have broken the ice in the US-Russia relations.