Recent steps taken by the United States to reduce tensions with Russia are important, not just in the bilateral context but also the overall world order, because a more nuanced approach will help to prevent Moscow from veering further towards Beijing.
The Biden Administration seems to be making efforts to reduce tensions with Moscow going by its tone and tenor in recent weeks.
Tensions between both countries had escalated after US President Joe Biden used strong language about Russian President Vladimir Putin in a media interview; when asked if Putin was a killer, Biden replied in the affirmative. The Russian President took umbrage to that remark but said that Moscow would continue to make efforts to improve ties with the United States.
In April 2021, days after a telephone conversation with Putin, the Biden Administration imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities for meddling in last year’s presidential election and expelled ten diplomats. Commenting on the imposition of sanctions, President Biden stated that he could have gone further in terms of the severity of sanctions but refrained from doing so.
Some Important Developments
First, while reacting to the hacking of the control systems of an oil pipeline, Biden refrained from blaming the Russian government but did not deny that there appeared to be a definite Russian connection to the hacking since the hackers’ ransomware was written in Russia. As Biden commented, ‘I’m gonna [sic] be meeting with President Putin and so far there is no evidence, based on our intelligence people, that Russia is involved.’
Second, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on the side-lines of the Arctic Council meetings in Reykjavik, Iceland on 19 May. The possible meeting between Biden and Putin in June 2021 was high on the agenda; on 25 May, the White House announced that Biden and Putin will meet on 16 June.
According to a White House handout, while the US Secretary of State sought a stable relationship with Russia, he also flagged differences. The handout noted that:
Secretary Blinken raised our deep concerns regarding Russia’s continued military deployments in and near Ukraine, its actions against VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the health of Aleksey Navalny and the repression of opposition organizations, among other issues.
Other issues discussed during the meeting included humanitarian access for the people of Syria, the resolution of the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict, Afghanistan and the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea. The US Secretary of State emphasised that sustained co-operation between both countries was essential for finding a resolution to some of those complex issues.
Hours before their meeting, the US announced that it would provide a waiver from sanctions on Gazprom, the company behind the Nordstream Project, along which gas is piped from Russia to Germany. The Biden Administration clarified that it still viewed the project as threat. The sanctions were a sticking point not just with Moscow but also with Germany. Reacting to the decision of the Biden Administration, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that the revocation of the sanctions was a constructive step.
Reasons for the Course Correction
The US realises that it needs to work with Russia on a number of global issues and, more importantly, would not like to push Moscow closer to China. In recent months, the Moscow-Beijing partnership has only strengthened after the Biden Administration’s initial tensions with both China and Russia, as was clearly evident from the joint statement issued by the Foreign Ministers of Russia and China in March 2021. As the debate about the slow rate of anti-Covid-19 vaccinations in developing countries has gained ground, it may be relevant that Russia, along with China, has been able to enhance its soft power by supplying vaccines to developing countries. While Russia has supplied its Sputnik vaccine, China has supplied its indigenously-developed Sinovac and Sinopharma vaccines to many developing countries, even though most of those were sold rather than donated. The Russian vaccine has gained acceptance, even in Europe, as a result of the global shortage of vaccines. On the other hand, the US has been criticised for not doing enough to help developing countries where the rate of vaccination is slow.
Broader Ramifications of US-Russia Relations and the India Factor
US-Russia relations are important, not just in the bilateral context but also for their broader ramifications. Countries with strong ties to the US are not expected to have to make tough choices. If one were to look at the example of India, for instance, a robust relationship with Moscow is important. In recent years, as New Delhi has moved closer to Washington, Moscow’s ties to Pakistan have strengthened. Similarly, there have been differences between New Delhi and Moscow over the S-400 anti-missile defence system. The US has warned India that it would impose sanctions on it if it were to acquire the Russian system.
Despite those differences in recent years, India and Russia have exploring the possibility of working together in Central Asia where Moscow remains wary of China’s increasing clout.
Looking at the bilateral relationship in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the first overseas vaccine which India approved for emergency use was Russia’s Sputnik. Production of the vaccine has begun in India. During the second wave of the pandemic in India, Russia was also quick to provide further aid, including oxygen producing units, ventilators and medicines.
The Biden Administration’s course correction is important not just in the context of bilateral relations, but also because a more nuanced approach will prevent Moscow from veering further towards Beijing. The trajectory of US-Russia ties will also be watched in other world capitals, especially in South Asia.