In spite of serious differences and Moscow’s proximity with Beijing, there is a growing realisation in Washington that a working relationship with Moscow is essential on a number of issues, including Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear deal. The Russia-US relationship is important, not just from a bilateral dimension, but will also be watched by countries which have close economic and security relations with Moscow, and which would not like to make tough choices.
The US and Russia have been working closely regarding the situation in Afghanistan, especially in the aftermath of the takeover by the Taliban and the resumption of the Vienna talks relating to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear agreement. A number of strategic analysts have argued that the Biden Administration’s approach towards Russia needs to be different from its approach towards Beijing, even though Washington-Moscow ties have witnessed significant strains in recent years.
US-Russia Relations and the Biden Administration
US President Joe Biden met with Russian President Putin in June 2021 at Geneva. Biden said that the overall tone of the meeting was positive, while Putin called Biden a ‘balanced’ and ‘mature’ individual. More recently, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; among other issues they discussed the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal.
Maintaining a working relationship with Moscow is important because, despite being closely aligned with Beijing, Russia has pushed the Taliban interim government towards forming a more inclusive government. On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the Russian Foreign Minister made the point that ‘The question of international recognition of the Taliban at the present juncture is not on the table.’
While Russia has said that it will provide assistance to Afghanistan to deal with its humanitarian crisis, it has also repeatedly said that the Taliban should fulfil the commitments it had made with regard to the formation of an inclusive government and the rights of minorities and women.
Russia’s Push for JCPOA-Related Talks
Russia’s ties to Iran have also witnessed an upswing in recent years as a result of the changing global and regional geo-political landscape. Moscow has pushed the US to take a more pro-active approach to the revival of the JCPOA. Only recently, during his visit to Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reiterated the importance of the Moscow-Tehran bilateral relationship. A return to negotiations on the JCPOA was discussed during the meeting. It had also been discussed during Blinken’s conversation with Lavrov. The Iranian Foreign Minister said that Tehran would return soon to talks on the revival of the JCPOA. Like Russia, Iran has not been comfortable with the composition of the Taliban Interim government and has reiterated the point that it needs to be inclusive.
Trajectory of US-Russia Relations Will Be Closely Watched
US-Russia relations will be closely watched by other countries, especially those that have close economic and security linkages with Russia.
While the US has softened its stance on the Nordstrom pipeline, which connects Germany and Russia – the Biden Administration has, for example, waived sanctions on the company and CEO responsible for the construction of Nordstrom 2, which connects Ust-Luga in Russia with Greifswald in Germany – it has adopted a strong stance on the acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile systems from Russia. The US imposed sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in December 2020 for its purchase of S-400 and also excluded it from the F-35 consortium defence agreement. The US said that Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 systems is inconsistent with Istanbul’s commitment as a NATO ally and poses a threat to the NATO security partnership. Washington has similarly warned India that it will impose sanctions if New Delhi acquires S-400 systems. The first batch of S-400s is likely to arrive in India this year. During her India leg of the South Asia visit, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said that:
We’ve been quite public about any country that decides to use the S-400. We think that is dangerous and not in anybody’s security interest. That said, we have a strong partnership with India.
Sherman’s statement is significant because there is a clear convergence between Washington and New Delhi on the emerging geopolitical situation in Afghanistan, as well as the Indo-Pacific.
The Trump Administration also planned to impose CAATSA sanctions on India, but former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis opposed the move and argued firmly to provide waivers to US partners, including India. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that sanctions should not be imposed on countries with which the US shares close links.
A manageable relationship between Moscow and Washington is essential not just in the bilateral context, but also in the context of the security situation in Afghanistan, in the wake of the take-over by the Taliban, the revival of the JCPOA and other global issues. The US also needs to give countries more space to pursue economic and security relations with Russia. While Washington has adopted a pragmatic approach towards the Nordstrom 2 pipeline, it remains to be seen if it will do the same with regard to the acquisition of S-400 missiles.