Biden clears the air on Russia ties

President Reagan meeting with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at Maison de Saussure during the Geneva Summit of Nov 1985 (File photo)

The US President Joe Biden’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies will draw wide attention in world capitals from Brussels to Beijing. 

He says right at the outset that this weeklong trip to Europe, the first overseas trip of his presidency, is “about realising America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”  

Biden reaffirms that the US “must lead the world from a position of strength” — be it on climate change or in “confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia” — and it demands that America’s economic recovery is firmly on track, and that “we are flanked by nations that share our values and our vision for the future — by other democracies.” 

The binary is sharply etched: democracy versus autocracy. Biden does not address China directly, perhaps due to the US’ inability to carry the European allies along. Significantly, Biden didn’t say a word about the Tiananmen Square “anniversary.” 

However, Biden’s references to China were in a competitive spirit — the “major democracies” planning to offer “a high-standard alternative” to China’s Belt and Road; the imperative to maintain the West’s lead in innovation and standards that “reshape our world in fundamental ways”; and, the intention to deny China the space to write “21st-century rules around trade and technology.” 

Significantly, Biden refrains from characterising China as a threat to world peace or stability. In sum, what stands out is that the US has trimmed the sails of its China policy so that it can hold the European winds. Call it realism. The forthcoming G-7 and NATO summits will provide markers. 

Ahead of Biden’s trip to confabulate with the European allies, the US and China have begun discussing trade and economic issues during two phone calls within a week which, as a Global Times editorial puts it, “mark the full recovery of communications between senior Chinese and US economic officials. This seems prominent in the context of the overall tensions between the two countries.” 

In comparison, Biden singled out Russia, in the context of his forthcoming summit with President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16. In three pithy paragraphs, Biden spelt out his approach to the summit. 

No doubt, Biden was addressing not only the domestic audience but also the Kremlin and the major European capitals (and, perhaps, Beijing as well) all of whom are anxiously watching Biden resetting his compass to navigate US-Russian relations toward what he calls “a stable and predictable relationship where we can work with Russia on issues like strategic stability and arms control.” 

The US opinion is no longer as toxic or visceral in its opposition to improvement of relations with Russia, as was the case during the Trump presidency. Arguably, given the obsessive rivalry vis-a-vis China, there is a degree of acceptance that the US stands to gain if Biden breaks up the Sino-Russian axis. 

Of course, as ever, Moscow is wired into the US opinion trends and the Kremlin is walking a fine line. Moscow’s “westernist” lobby historically argued that Russia’s future lies with Europe. The mantra is: ‘No breakthrough is to be expected.’ But like in the Charles Dickens novel, ‘Barkis is willing’. Suffice to say, it is entirely up to Biden to wet the toes. 

Biden has underscored that he will be approaching the summit with Putin to advance the Western consensus “to address Russia’s challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine,” and, secondly, “there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests.” 

Biden flagged that in his calls with Putin, he has been “clear and direct” that he seeks to stabilise the relationship with Russia and make it predictable while exploring a selective engagement that is in the interests of the West and indeed international security. 

On the contrary, Biden stressed, there should be no misconceptions that he will be hard as nail apropos of Russia’s “behaviours that violate U.S. sovereignty, including interference in our democratic elections. And President Putin knows that I will not hesitate to respond to future harmful activities.” 

Equally, Biden intends to “stand up for human rights and dignity” in Russia. This is plain speaking. No detente or Helsinki Accord for Biden. The US will be intrusive in regard of Putin’s policies toward the opposition, media freedom, dissent, etc. 

Biden has done a masterly trapeze act by penning this opinion piece just 3 days before he embarks on his European tour — dispelling any misconceptions in the Beltway that he’s getting into some sort of dalliance with Putin; assuring the European allies that his talking points with Putin are firmly anchored on the West’s consensus on common interests; and, signalling to both Moscow and Beijing the US’ determination to speak to them from a “position of strength.” 

Indeed, this will not reduce Biden’s summit with Putin to a “non-event.” The mystique about Russian-American summits lies in their unpredictability. 

Comparisons have been drawn with the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Geneva in November 1985 hardly two years after Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech while addressing the National Association of Evangelics where he referred to the former Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” In a little over 5 years after Reagan’s Geneva summit, both the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist. 

History never repeats. Nonetheless, Chinese experts are anxious. As a Beijing-based foreign affairs expert who required anonymity puts it, “In the eyes of the US and its Western allies, Russia is a polar bear. The bear, in their eyes, is becoming slimmer now, but these countries want to do more to harm Russia. They hope that the bear had better die one day so that they can eat the meat and take the skin. President Putin is crystal clear about those people’s thought.”