Why US and Russia are at each other’s throats

Why US and Russia are at each other’s throats

Saturday, April 17, 2021 1:49 pm

Biden and Putin: At each other's throat

Biden and Putin: At each other’s throat

By Nehru Odeh

In a move that re-enacts the cold war years President Joe Biden of the United States has bared his fangs on the international scene. Not only has he imposed strict sanctions on Russia for cyber-attacks and other hostile acts, he has by this singular act sounded a note of warning to unfriendly nations such as China and Iran that the protection of American interests comes first in his foreign policy agenda.

“My bottom line is this: There is an interest in the United States to work with Russia. We should and we will. But “when Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond,” he said. “I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so. I chose to be proportionate,” Biden said to the press, shortly after issuing an executive order imposing the sanctions on Thursday.

Biden blame Russia’s premier intelligence agency for the hacking operations that breached American government agencies and the nation’s largest companies.  The latest sanctions target 32 entities and officials accused of trying to influence the 2020 US presidential election “and other acts of disinformation”. Ten diplomats are being expelled. The executive order also bars US financial institutions from purchasing rouble-denominated bonds from June.

By imposing these sanctions, the US intends to make it more difficult for Russia to take part in the global economy if it continued its campaign of disruptive actions, including in cyberspace and on the border of Ukraine.

Biden said in comments at the White House, describing how he had warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of what was coming in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship,” he said, offering again to meet Putin in person this summer in Europe.

What actually is the bone of contention?  In a statement, the United State accused Russia of being behind last year’s solar wind hacks and interference in the 2020 US Presidential elections, acts which Russia denied. Still, the thaw in the US-Russia relations is not coming as a surprise as there have been no love lost between the two countries, even in the years following the Second World War and the ideological battles fought between the two superpowers.

In the years following the Second World War, the two countries battled to gain not just political and economic territories in the third world but also ideological allies. And the relation was characterized by hostile acts directed at each other and their allies. However, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union the hostilities between the two countries on the ideological front subsided, as Russia was at the time battling to save its soul since it was in dire straits.

Still, with the emergence of Putin and the re-emergence of Russia on the international scene as a superpower whose influence and power can never be underestimated, there seems to be a resumption of the cold war that had earlier characterized the relation between the two countries. Still, Putin seem to be more assertive and influential on the international scene. He is eager to assert Russia’s presence on the international scene and make his country great again. Acts such as Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and its alleged involvement in the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, using a nerve agent goes a long way to show Putin’s assertiveness.

Still, Putin did not end there. He knew the enormous economic and political power which the United States wields on the international scene. So rather than confronted it he decided rather to take the battle to the United States itself. That was why, as it has been alleged, he influenced the United States Presidential election in 2016, making sure his choice, Republican candidate Donald Trump won the election.

This indeed did not go down well with the Democrats in the United State, who found Putin’s undue influence on the US Presidential election an affront and the reason they lost. Although Putin and Trump denied that. It has also been alleged that Putin also tried to influence the 2020 Presidential election in order to favour Trump but did not succeed. That is, indeed, one of the reasons Biden imposed sanctions on Russia on Thursday.

Biden’s latest tough act is not unexpected. Aside from the fact that it is a vindictive action against Russia for its interference in American politics, Biden himself is trying to prove critics, including Trump wrong. Many had always seen the Democratic Party as a weakling when it comes to the international scene. In fact, the Obama-Biden administration was accused of doing nothing while Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

And that is the reason why giving his first foreign policy speech in February, Biden vowed to stand up to Russia. “The days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions… are over,” he said.

Senator Bob Menedez, Democratic chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, has cheered Biden’s approach. “The Biden administration’s tough approach towards the Kremlin is a welcome departure from four years of Donald Trump’s pandering to Putin.

“It is reassuring and frankly a relief to have president willing to clearly call Putin what he is – a killer, a military aggressor in Ukraine, a source of malign influence, a cyber-threat.”

However, after this tough measure Biden has taken, what next? Are the sanctions enough to deter Putin from taking more aggressive actions against the United States? Andrew Weiss, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank analyst, does not think the U.S. sanctions would change a “largely competitive and adversarial relationship” in the short term or deter Russia in the long term.

“I’d be surprised if today’s very calibrated announcements by the Biden administration materially shift the relationship in either direction,” he said, saying Russia was willing to cooperate on some issues but there was unlikely ever to be a meeting of the minds on Ukraine or election interference.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the new sanctions will shift Russia’s risk calculus in a fundamental fashion,” he added. “It’s to be expected that the Russians will keep probing and testing our resolve.”

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, also believed that sanctions alone would not be enough to deter the Russians. He said the response to Russia would include “seen and unseen” actions, and Biden himself suggested in December that the United States would respond in kind, presumably with cyber operations of its own.

However, Russia has promised retaliation. The Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said a response would be “inevitable,” but did not immediately disclose what it would entail. And the American ambassador was summoned to a meeting with Russian officials, Zakharova said.

“Such aggressive behaviour will of course receive a decisive response. In Washington, they should know there will be a cost for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies wholly with the United States,” Zakharova maintained.

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