Improvement in constructive strategic relations between USA and Russia

Published : 29 Jun 2021 08:05 PM | Updated : 30 Jun 2021 01:20 AM

The world, particularly the G-7 countries, NATO and the European Union watched very carefully all the connotations of statements made by President Joe Biden as he met Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. This bilateral meeting came after Biden's five earlier engagements over the week -- meetings in the UK, the G7, meetings with the EU and NATO. 

During their hours-long Summit, the first between the two leaders since Biden took office in January both sides highlighted their significant issues. They also pledged to have regular negotiations. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assisted US President Joe Biden during the talks and the Russian President Vladimir Putin was assisted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

At a news conference in Geneva after the summit, Putin said it was “hard to say” if relations between the US and Russia would improve, but that there was a “glimpse of hope”. Later, Putin called Biden a constructive, experienced partner, and said that they spoke “the same language”. However, he also added that there had been a pragmatic dialogue about the two countries’ interests and that “It was substantive, it was specific. It was aimed at achieving results, and one of them was pushing back (widening) the frontiers of trust.” Nevertheless, the Kremlin has also warned that there were still significant points of disagreement between Moscow and Washington.

Biden later told reporters at a separate post-summit news conference that he had outlined US interests to Putin and made clear to him that Washington would respond if Russia infringed on those concerns.

Strategic analysts, both in the electronic and print media have subsequently identified certain aspects that had received special attention during the discussion between Biden and Putin.

Putin has noted that Moscow and Washington will begin discussions on possible changes to the ‘New START arms control treaty’ after it expires in 2026. Both countries apparently agree that they are responsible for nuclear strategic stability. It may be recalled that, signed in 2010, the New START treaty limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers that Russia and the United States can deploy. It may be mentioned here that as of 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the USA, at present, has 5,500 nuclear and other warheads and Russia has 6,255. Together they hold more than 90 percent of the world’s entire nuclear weapons arsenal.

This scenario underlines the importance of further discussions between these two countries on arms control. This has been a positive move forward. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has also welcomed this move through his comment that  “Washington’s second step in restoring common sense and a responsible approach to key aspects of international security” needs to be welcomed.

In this context, both sides have agreed that to facilitate the groundwork for future arms control agreements their respective Ambassadors need to be present in their posts in Washington, D.C. and also in Moscow. It has subsequently been mentioned that Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, will resume his duties in Washington by the end of this month. He had been temporarily recalled to Moscow earlier this year in March.

On cyber security, Putin has claimed that Russia has provided exhaustive information to the US on cyber attacks and also noted that the two sides have agreed to start consultations on the matter. Neither side has given details on how their planned cyber security talks might unfold. On cyber-attacks, Mr Putin has brushed away accusations of Russian responsibility, saying that most cyber-attacks in Russia originated from the US.

Mr Biden on the other hand has apparently drawn Putin’s attention to the fact that under all circumstances critical infrastructures, such as water or energy, must be "off-limits" with regard to hacking or other attacks.  The U.S. President has also observed that "I looked at him and said how you would feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter," Mr Biden said, adding that if Russia violated these "basic norms" the US would retaliate. Biden said he told Putin that critical infrastructure should be “off-limits” to cyber attacks, saying that included 16 sectors including water and energy. Such a reference by the U.S. President obviously arose because of a cyber attack that closed the Colonial Pipeline Co system for several days in May, preventing millions of barrels of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from flowing to the US’s East Coast from the Gulf Coast. We have to wait and see what happens now.

Sounding a note of caution, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also highlighted areas of contention between the two sides.

This includes views about what is presently taking place within the political paradigm in Belarus, Ukraine, and the role of NATO – the transatlantic security alliance that Biden has strongly recommitted Washington to. Peskov has said that Ukrainian membership of NATO would be a “red line” for Moscow and that it was worried by the talk that Kiev may one day be granted a membership action plan following a recent flare-up of hostilities Ukraine’s conflict-stricken east, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since 2014. It may be mentioned that US-Russia relations have been deteriorating for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has in the meantime apparently indicated to Biden that he wants a clear “yes” or “no” from him on giving Ukraine a plan to join the Alliance.

The two sides differed sharply on human rights, including the right to protest.

Mr Putin dismissed US concerns about Navalny, who recently undertook a 24-day hunger strike. He pointed out, without mentioning his name, that Navalny had ignored the law and knew he would face imprisonment when he returned to Russia after having sought medical treatment in Germany. Navalny, it may be recalled, has alleged that he was poisoned with a nerve agent on Mr Putin's orders - an accusation Mr Putin denies.

Interestingly, Putin also suggested that Washington was in no position to lecture Moscow on rights. He dismissed the question about his crackdown on political rivals by saying he was trying to avoid the “disorder” of a popular movement, such as Black Lives Matter. He observed that “What we saw was disorder, disruption, violations of the law, etc. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don’t want that to happen on our territory and we’ll do our utmost in order to not allow it to happen”.

Biden, as expected, has dismissed Putin’s criticism of human rights in the US. He has also rejected the comparisons in the observance of accountability between Russia and the United States and has underlined that the consequences for Russia would be “devastating” if jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny died while in custody. He is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a penal colony.

Keir Giles, Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has significantly pointed out that standing up to the US has been a large part of Putin's success at home. He has observed that "His robust response both to softball questions from tame Russian media and to challenges from foreign journalists will win points at home from those Russians who share his conviction that it is the West who is the dangerous, unpredictable, aggressive partner in the relationship".

Other analysts have also indicated that supporters of Putin are likely to be satisfied after the meeting. This will be so because the Putin approach has on the one hand reasonably reiterated Russian agreement to work with the US on big international issues like security and restoration of conventional diplomatic channels- and on the other hand, has also managed to highlight the flaws in American society as compared to the social matrix of Russia. The summit has also given Putin an opportunity to pause the fallout from deteriorating relations between Moscow and DC, as the US might now be reluctant to place additional economic sanctions on Russia or reprimand Putin for arresting dissenters at home. All of this could be useful when Russia holds parliamentary elections later this year. Putin appears to have gained by just having gone to Geneva.

Many strategists have however referred to the absence of clarity during this important meeting about two different topics that had been highlighted earlier by Mukhin Alexey Mukhin, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. There is ambiguity as to whether the evolving situation in – the Arctic and Syria – came up during the talks. Many had expected that it would. However there is no certainty that it has.

 Both issues are important for the USA and Europe. In the next two years, Moscow is going to hold the rotating Presidency of the Arctic Council of nations that border the region where melting ice opens up new sea routes that may compete with the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits. Russia is keen about this role because it believes that it should get its share of the Arctic Bonanza that contains up to 90 billion barrels of oil and natural gas deposits. Moscow has also been ramping up its military presence in the Arctic despite the six-month-long nights and nine-month-long winters because the region provides the shortest way for ballistic missiles from Russia to North America – or the other way around. Anxiety in this regard has already been expressed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in mid-May.

There is also the continuing anxiety about Russia’s role in Syria and its efforts to save President Bashar Assad. Many have questioned whether this subject came up for discussion given the deteriorating situation in the war-torn nation.

There are also queries about what Russia has agreed to regarding the need to distribute Covid vaccines in poor countries. Many are also asking whether there was any discussion or positive outcome related to the international effort being undertaken to fight climate variability.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.