"When I was with Mr. Putin, who has a real problem — he is — he’s sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else. Nothing else. Their economy is — what? — the eighth smallest in the world now — largest in the world? He knows — he knows he’s in real trouble, which makes him even more dangerous, in my view."
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville admonished his educated European readers claiming that "[t] oday there are two great peoples on earth who, starting from different points, seem to advance toward the same goal: these are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both grew up in obscurity; and while the attention of men was occupied elsewhere, they suddenly took their place in the first rank of nations, and the world learned of their birth and their greatness nearly at the same time. All other peoples seem to have almost reached the limits drawn by nature, and have nothing more to do except maintain themselves; but these two are growing.5 All the others have stopped or move ahead only with a thousand efforts; these two alone walk with an easy and rapid stride along a path whose limit cannot yet be seen. The American struggles against obstacles that nature opposes to him; the Russian is grappling with men. The one combats the wilderness and barbarism; the other, civilization clothed in all its arms. Consequently the conquests of the American are made with the farmer’s plow, those of the Russian with the soldier’s sword. To reach his goal the first relies on personal interest, and, without directing them, allows the strength and reason of individuals to operate. The second in a way concentrates all the power of society in one man. The one has as principal means of action liberty; the other, servitude. Their point of departure is different, their paths are varied; nonetheless, each one of them seems called by a secret design of Providence to hold in its hands one day the destinies of half the world. (2010, 655-656)
Russia - US Relations
Russia cannot pose a long-term system challenge to the US, unlike China. “I think with a high degree of certainty that Russia will emerge from Ukraine weaker than it went into the conflict. Militarily weaker, economically weaker, politically and geopolitically weaker, and more isolated,” US Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Khal said 25 March 2022.
American and Russian approaches to European security are irreconcilable, given Russia’s insistence that it needs a sphere of influence as a buffer zone in Europe. Russia believes it should not have hostile military forces on its borders, and should have legally guaranteed strategic security zones such as the United States enjoys behind two oceans with friendly governments to north and south. Russia hopes to achieve through diplomacy and force of arms what the United States enjoys by happy accident of geography and history.
Edward W. Walker, the comparative political scientist who worked at UC Berkeley from 1993 to 2017, argued in April 2019 that "Putin's decision to return to the presidency, as well as his 2012 policy pivot, were the product of his understanding of Russia's - and not simply his own - interests. In my view, Putin, and indeed most of the Russian political elite, genuinely believe that the United States, and the West broadly, pose a threat to Russian political stability and security. They are convinced that Western democracy promotion, and the West's public embrace of "universal values," are hypocritical smokescreens masking U.S. ambitions to remain the world's sole superpower and geopolitical hegemon. They also are convinced that the changes advocated by Western democracy promoters would produce chaos at home and weakness abroad, not prosperity and strength. And they understand the tolerance entailed in liberalism as incompatible with traditional Russian values and Russian 'civilization'..... the Russian political elite, including those few who are still relatively well-disposed toward liberal democracy, have cause to believe that while the United States insists that other states comply with the rules of the "liberal international order," it acts as if it, and it alone, has the right to violate those rules.
"Russia's mass oppositional demonstrations [in 2011] ... only reinforced his conviction that the West was simply incapable of refraining from destabilizing non-democratic regimes, and that Russia, sooner-or-later, would be in its crosshairs. That in turn suggests why Putin would then authorize a concerted Russian assault on Western democracy, a risky project that goes well beyond demonizing the United States and its allies at home. For Putin, Russia is simply doing to the West what the West has been doing to it. And he intends to win the 'meddling war'."
President George W Bush said in 2000 after his first meeting with Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul”. “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden recalled telling Putin during a 2011 meeting in the Kremlin, according to the New Yorker magazine. “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’”
During an interview on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program, Joe Biden argued late in October 2020, two weeks out from polling day, that ‘the biggest threat to the United States right now, in the sense of breaking our security and our alliances, it’s Russia.’ Joe Biden became a U.S. senator in 1972 and visited the USSR a year later in 1973. Six years later, in August 1979, he returned on an official visit. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended and Biden advanced up the political ladder, he had to deal with newly independent Russia in the position as Vice President of the U.S. in the Obama administration. Since 2011, Biden has grown increasingly suspicious of Moscow’s intentions and criticized Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy on several occasions.
Biden already called Putin’s government “paranoid” for poisoning opposition leader Alexey Navalny with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. “It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent,” he said in early October 2020.
In March 2021, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized American officials for what he saw as attempts to deal with the country in a confrontational and superior manner. “The Americans are now repeating like a mantra the idea that they will speak with everyone from a position of power,” the spokesman added. “Neither Putin, nor anyone else from the Russian administration, will allow the US or other nations to talk to us like that – it’s out of the question,” Peskov said.
On 15 April 2021 Biden said : "The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of ecs- — of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship. If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy, I’m prepared to take further actions to respond. It is my responsibility, as President of the United States, to do so. But throughout our long history of competition, our two countries have been able to find ways to manage tensions and to keep them from escalating out of control. There are also areas where Russia and the United States can and should work together. For example, in the earliest days of my administration, we were able to move quickly to extend, for five years, the New START Treaty, and maintain that key element of nuclear stability between our nations. That was in the interest of the United States, of Russia, and, quite frankly, of the world, and we got it done."
Dmitri Medvedev was President in 2008–2011. In anticipation of the next presidential election (2012) Vice President Joe Biden visited Moscow (March 9, 2011). According to some Russian experts, this demonstrated “the Western support of Dmitri Medvedev’s candidacy for the second term in office or, in other words, it was directed against the return of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia. Biden became Putin's fifth US president, a line-up that started with Bill Clinton. Putin had mixed feelings about the former vice-president. On the one hand, Biden was one of those members of former President Barack Obama's administration who did not hide their sympathy for Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's stand-in in 2008-2012, and hoped that he would run for a second presidential term. Putin does not forget — nor, allegedly, forgive — such perceived slights.
But, on the other hand, Putin openly despised the Obama-Biden administration, considering it weak and indecisive. It resisted and dithered before the adoption by Congress of the Magnitsky Act, designed to punish those who abuse human rights. It sat back when Syrian leader Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his Syrian civilians, thus erasing its own so-called "red lines" — and then watched helplessly as Russia sent its air force and bailed out the Syrian dictator. Even more important for Putin was Obama's initially restrained reaction to the annexation of Crimea, and, finally, his staunch refusal to supply the Ukrainian army with lethal weapons. It was the Trump administration that reversed this policy.
So Putin waited to see whether the Biden-Harris administration becomes Team Obama 3.0 or pursues a tougher line vis-a-vis Moscow. It probably won't take long to figure out. Biden's team will very soon have to come into direct contact with the Russian leadership to begin negotiations on a new strategic offensive arms treaty to replace the START-3 agreement, which was signed in 2011 by Obama and Medvedev. Moscow and Washington now discuss extending it for a year.
Moscow can count on the abiding interest Biden has shown throughout his political career regarding the subject of arms control. And it so happens that the 2011 New START agreement, the lone surviving US-Russia arms pact, is due to expire on 5th February unless both parties extend it (for up to another five years), which is deceptively easy if only the two presidents agree to do so.
The Democratic Party 2020 platform stated "Democrats will join our European partners in standing up to a revanchist Russia. We will not allow Moscow to interfere in our democracies or chip away at our resolve. We will reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO and defending our allies. We will maintain transatlantic support for Ukraine’s reform efforts and its territorial integrity. Democrats will lower regional—and global—threats by reinforcing nuclear arms control"
There were three topics that the Kremlin watched to see how the Biden White House proceeds: Belarus, Alexei Navalny's poisoning, and Europe — especially Germany.
Will the new administration increase pressure on Lukashenko's regime in Belarus? From Putin's point of view, this will show whether the new president is ready to resist Moscow's desire to control the post-Soviet space, including Ukraine.
Will Biden condemn the attempted murder of the Russian opposition leader in the same way as the EU did? Putin believes that during the Moscow protests in 2011-2012, the Obama administration supported the protesters in the hope of preventing his return to the Kremlin. Given the Kremlin's obsession with the threat of US-sponsored "regime change," the attitude of Biden and his people towards Navalny is a topic of utmost importance for Putin.
The attitude of the Democratic administration towards the Nord Stream-2 project also held as much weight. The Trump administration, with congressional support, is putting pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to abandon the nearly completed gas pipeline. The Kremlin views it as a tool of economic pressure on Ukraine that will rob Kyiv of a significant part of its Russian gas transit revenues. Berlin is resisting Trump's pressure.
The United States on 15 April 2021 announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and sanctions against nearly three dozen people. The sanctions represent the first retaliatory action announced against the Kremlin for last year's hacking attack, which has been called the "SolarWinds" breach. The measures include sanctions on six Russian companies that are alleged to have aided the country's cyber activities. A further 32 individuals and entities are accused of attempting to interfere in last year's presidential election, including by spreading disinformation. The White House said that the 10 diplomats being expelled include representatives of the Russian intelligence services.
US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit in Geneva 16 June 2021. Both sides underscored opportunities for cooperation but downplayed expectations for any improvement in tense relations between Moscow and Washington. The meeting was expected to be more of an airing of grievances than a platform to reach significant agreements. Biden’s goals included seeking areas where the United States and Russia can work together while clearly stating U.S. vital national interests and making it clear that Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response. Putin and Biden agreed to launch strategic stability consultations and reduce the risk of conflict between the world's two dominant nuclear powers. The new US strategy is to stabilise relations with Russia so it can focus on countering China. The success of Washington’s “Russia stabilisation” policy is not guaranteed, but Russia seems to have much less appetite for confrontation with the West than in the 2010s. The Biden-Putin summit can be viewed as an attempt to reach a "non-aggression pact".
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said 06 July 2021 that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has made it clear, including publicly, that achieving results is only possible through finding a mutually acceptable balance of interests on a strictly equal basis.” Despite constructive talks between Putin and his American counterpart, Joe Biden, in Geneva last month, Lavrov said that Washington’s officials had made a return to “lecturing” the Kremlin. This included a warning that the country could soon face more sanctions if it does not accept “the rules of the game” set out by US envoys in Geneva, he said.
Russia is "harmless and squeaky-clean" compared to Western countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at an annual press conference on 17 December 2020 in response to a question of a BBC reporter. The BBC representative asked a question about reasons for worsening relations between Russia and the West and wondered whether the Russian leader felt himself responsible for it, at least partially, or Russia is "harmless and squeaky-clean."
"Now, about us being harmless and squeaky-clean. Compared to you, yes, it is a fact, we are harmless and squeaky-clean because we agreed to release from an unequivocal Soviet dictate those countries and nations that wanted to develop independently. We heard your assurances that NATO won’t expand to the East but you didn’t keep your promises," the Russian leader responded. The president noted that those were not written guarantees but verbal promises yet emphasized that none of them were kept as a result.
Putin then continued to compare Russian policy with the actions of the Western countries over past decades. "Did we withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? It wasn’t us who did that. And we are forced to respond by creating new weapon systems that curb threats. Then our colleagues withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Was it us who withdrew? No, that was our American partners. Accordingly, we said that we won’t produce and deploy such weapon systems as long as American weapons don’t arrive in Europe. Yet nobody responds to this, nobody reacts. Then they withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty. What are we supposed to do then? I don’t want to ask you this question but what are we supposed to do after this? Just let it be? So you, as a NATO country, will fly over us and report everything to the American partners and we will be deprived of this opportunity regarding American territory," he said, addressing the Western journalist.
"Why do you think that we are idiots? Why do you think that we cannot see some obvious things? There are some other issues that cause our concern. We are forced to react to them," the Russian leader added. “Compared to you we are white and fluffy. We are set up for dialogue” [“White and fluffy” is a Russian expression, synonymous with honest, well-meaning, decent.]
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