(De-)Escalating US-Russia Relations
Neoclis Soteriou, Alexandra Wong and Krystel von Kumberg, NORTHCOM
President of Russia Vladimir Putin
President of the United States Joe Biden
On Thursday, April 15, 2021, President of the United States (US) Joe Biden publicly called for open dialogue between Washington and Moscow after unveiling a new lineup of sanctions designed to provide a “proportionate” response for Russia’s so-called SolarWinds cyberattack, Moscow’s meddling in the 2020 US presidential election and the ongoing occupation of Crimea. Biden stated that the US is not seeking a “cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.” Further stating that “now is the time to de-escalate. The way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process.” This signaled to Russia that the US will hold Moscow accountable for its ongoing adversarial behavior, but will cooperate and collaborate on areas of mutual interest. This seems difficult at times especially because Russia is a conservative revisionist power that seeks to reestablish its historic geopolitical reality, while the US has strived to change the world as it has done for more than two centuries. US-Russia Relations have likely reached their lowest point in decades, as they find themselves in a diplomatic drought, and have to surmount an escalating intelligence battlefield, possible military confrontation, and overcome the shadow of sanctions. However, there is a roughly even chance that relations will not escalate any further because it is not in the interest of either state to further spiral out of control. Nonetheless, the US and Russian worldviews starkly differ and this is an international problem that can create a lot of unintended blowbacks, security threats, and instability worldwide.
Evolution of US-Russian Relations
Russia and the US have maintained diplomatic relations since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The US-Russia relationship is a crucial bilateral relationship with major shared interests including security cooperation and stability, nuclear security, regional security in Europe, counterterrorism efforts and conflict in the Middle East, and space exploration. However, geopolitical crises have often caused major tensions. Immediately following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), relations seemed positive: under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia joined international institutions with US support including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Group of Eight (G8). US officials largely assumed that former Soviet states, including Russia, would be eager to globalize.
However, it became clear that Russia would not subscribe to a post-Cold War international order characterized by US hegemony and underpinned by Western liberal ideals. Relations deteriorated between the US and Russia under Putin’s first presidency from 1999 to 2008, and under Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012. Seven new member countries from Central and Eastern Europe joined NATO in 2004, including former USSR republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, provoking tensions with Russia. In 2007, the US moved forward in negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic to construct a missile defense base in Poland; this was heavily criticized by the Kremlin, who warned of a second Cold War or an arms race. In 2011, Putin (then Prime Minister to Medvedev) accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of encouraging opposition protests to the ruling United Russia party, also among Russian claims that the US and Western world were responsible for uprisings during the Arab Spring.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian-claimed Crimean Peninsula against international law and continues to maintain de facto control. In response, President Barack Obama’s administration levied sanctions against Russian officials, canceled talks on trade, and canceled military consultations. Russia has subsequently disinvited from the G8 (now G7) political forum. Unrest throughout eastern Ukraine continued as the war in Donbas broke out between Ukrainian security forces and Russian-backed separatist groups. The US responded with further economic sanctions targeting major defense and energy companies, further deteriorating the state of any bilateral relationship: then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that “We will simply return to the ‘80s in relations." The evolution of US-Russian relations reflects the constant ups and downs in the relationship present within the past decades, all of which are still very pertinent to the relationship today.
Putin’s Relationship with the US Presidency
The relationship between Putin and former US President Trump was seemingly much more turbulent, uncertain, and tainted by scandal, compared to that of Putin and Biden. Even before Trump became president, he had established at least some form of relationship with Russia through his role as a businessman. In November of 2013 Trump held his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, using the occasion to seek out top Russian officials for an agreement on the potential for construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow. According to reports, Trump had even sought a meeting with Putin himself but failed to do so and left Russia without a deal. However, this did not deter Trump from continuing to seek the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, even while he ran his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and later for the presidency. Simultaneously, during the 2016 presidential election, there was a concerted effort by Russia to interfere in the election process to support the election of Trump and the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Trump consistently denied allegations of collusion with Russia regarding the election, however, several members of his election campaign staff and legal team were found to have been in contact with Russian agents throughout the campaign. There is an ongoing debate among academics and analysts over whether or not Trump was a “useful idiot” for Putin, inadvertently advancing Russia’s interests at the expense of US interests. However, it is certain that Trump expressed admiration for Putin on several occasions throughout his term in office and never challenged the Kremlin.
Additionally, since Trump has left office following his reelection defeat, the Biden administration has confirmed that a Russian agent with close connections to Trump’s top 2016 campaign official “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and [Trump] campaign strategy,” proving that there was in fact collusion. It is highly likely that these connections have stained the current US-Russian relationship and could likely lead to the worsening in the short term. The Kremlin was able to get away with a lot during the Trump administration. Undermining American democracy and going unpunished for it, as well as 2020, major SolarWinds cyberattack by a group backed by the Russian government, which entered thousands of organizations globally including multiple parts of the US federal government, leading to a series of data breaches. The Russians breached the email accounts of government officials tasked with identifying foreign threats to US national security. The long duration (approximately eight to nine months) allowed the hackers to gain access to the largest amount of information and will almost certainly have extremely dire long-term effects for the US and its allies on a global scale.
Unlike Trump, Biden has promised to have a much tougher stance with the Kremlin and will not stand for any malign behavior, and is simultaneously open to cooperation whenever possible. Biden and Putin agreed to extend the New Start arms-control treaty in January, a Russian foreign policy achievement that stalled under the Trump administration. Biden was likely considered a much more professional and reliable partner on many fronts by the Kremlin. However, the March interview in which Biden asserted when asked whether Putin was a “killer” worsened the relationship. Especially because Putin requires more than anything to feel like he’s an equal player on the international stage, who demands respect and even admiration. The consequence sanctions released publicly on Thursday, April 15, 2021, made matters much worse. On Wednesday, April 21, 2021, during Putin’s annual State of the Nation speech, he warned Moscow will respond “harshly,” “quickly” and “asymmetrically” to foreign provocations, adding that he “hoped” no foreign actor would cross Russia’s “red lines”. Putin further argued Russia had become a scapegoat, that blame was constantly pinned on for wrongdoing, suggesting he denies all Russian malign involvement. This will likely increase tensions and may even lead to Russian provocations in the short term, as Putin does not take accountability for Moscow’s actions.
US and Russian foreign policy certainly contrast fundamental ideological differences towards the state of the world order, and recent diplomacy has reflected these disagreements. On Thursday, April 15, 2021, the US imposed sanctions on Russia following the 2020 SolarWinds hack, reports of Russian interference in the 2020 US presidential elections, and increased deployment of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. The US concurrently expelled 10 Russian diplomats. In response, Russia expelled 10 diplomats and added 8 US officials to a no-entry list, although initially Diplomat John Sullivan was only “advised” to leave. Despite rising tensions, the US and Russia are highly likely to keep responses proportionate and symmetric, to avoid a furthered diplomatic crisis. US-Russia bilateral cooperation is important in a variety of areas, from arms control to climate change, and both countries are aware of this: for example, Putin spoke at an online climate summit hosted by the US on Thursday, April 22, 2021, despite the current crisis.
These actions come at a time of already-heightened tensions between Russia and the international community due to actions such as militarization in the Arctic, and domestic anti-democratic actions including the arrest of political prisoner Alexei Navalny. Following the events of April 15, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) wrote on Twitter that “@JoeBiden expressed an interest in normalizing #RussiaUS ties, but current administration’s actions suggest the opposite. The US is not ready to put up with the objective reality of a #multipolar world.” Moving away from post-Cold War diplomatic niceties, Russia and the US may take increasingly explicit ideological stances against each other, making both states less willing to cooperate.
In addition, Russia has also sought to portray the US as a power interfering with others’ affairs and coercing other states to act in pro-US, pro-Western interests. On Saturday, April 18, 2021, the Czech Republic accused two Russian diplomats of being operatives responsible for a 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot in Vrbetice and ordered the expulsion of 18 diplomats. In response, Russia expelled 20 Czech diplomats, and a Russian MFA statement said that “In their desire to please the United States against the background of recent US sanctions against Russia, Czech authorities in this respect even outdid their masters from across the pond.” This comes at a time in which Russia is engaging in “vaccine diplomacy” — sending doses of COVID-19 vaccines such as Sputnik V to countries struggling with the pandemic — to gain goodwill with those countries and playing on tensions within the EU and NATO. Slovakia was a recipient of Sputnik V but also expelled three Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague. In a press conference on Thursday, April 22, 2021, when asked whether she believed “active unfriendly actions by Western countries against Russia” were a “deliberately planned campaign,” Zakharova responded that “We call them the ‘collective West.’ Who is running the show? We all know it is the US. They are not even hiding it.” These events represent a great power struggle between the US and Russia for regional influence and cooperation with states in Central and Eastern Europe, which may define diplomatic action even as tensions cool.
The Kremlin is widely suspected of having orchestrated the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Putin denied Russia having played a part in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, with a Soviet-era nerve agent from the Novichok group. Putin said that the idea of Russia being responsible was a western intelligence farce. Western security sources, however, are confident about accusing the Federal Security Services (FSB) in private. On Friday, April 16, 2021, Russian authorities designated the organization of opposition leader Alexei Navalny as an “extremist group” to outlaw his political movement and force them underground. The Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) tracks and publishes investigations revealing the sheer amounts of the hidden wealth of Putin, his “inner circle” and powerful counterparts. Putin believes the West is using Navalny and is undermining Putin’s power. Stability is quintessential to Putin and he among his “inner circle” believe that he is currently the only person who can keep the balance between competing factions in Russia’s ruling elite and keep Russia stable. Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan warned on Sunday, April 18, 2021, that there will be repercussions for Russia if Putin’s most significant opponent Navalny, currently on hunger strike for several weeks, dies in prison. This would likely lead to an escalation in the conflict.
Regarding the recent SolarWinds cyberattack, the Russian government hackers breached the Treasury and Commerce departments, along with several other US government agencies, as part of a global espionage campaign. The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), steals information for traditional espionage purposes, seeking secrets that might help the Kremlin to forecast future events; understanding the plans and motives behind politicians’ and policymakers’ actions on a global scale. This is in many respects normal practice by nations worldwide, but this particular hack has particularly worsened relations due to its sheer breadth, and the fact it was leaked publicly only makes things more problematic for US-Russia relations.
For more than a decade, Russia has invested substantially into the significant improvement of its military. This significant improvement in Russian military capacity has created several ongoing security implications for the US, which are likely to get in the way of any efforts by the Biden administration to de-escalate the tense relationship between the US and Russia. These security implications include Russia’s ability to aggressively pursue its national interests, as it did in the case of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing conflicts in the Donbas region of Ukraine and Syria. Most recently, these implications have included the amassing of Russian troops along the country’s border with Ukraine. The concentration of Russian troops along the border came amid a surge of cease-fire violations in the Donbas region, where Russia-baсked separatists and Ukrainian forces have been locked in an ongoing conflict since Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky had requested to speak with Putin but did not receive an answer from the Russian President. On Thursday, April 22, 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that the troops had completed their drills in the southwest of the country near Ukraine and Crimea, and would return to their permanent bases by Saturday, May 1, 2021. The drills were supposedly designed to showcase Russia’s ability to provide a defense to their territories. This incident is a demonstration of how Russian interests are often at odds with US national interests, which in this case is the preservation of Ukrainian territorial integrity and a peaceful end to the conflict, as well as often at odds with international law. Because of this, the ability of Russia to aggressively pursue these interests internationally increases the prospect of a future confrontation between the US and Russia. As well, due to recent increases in Russian investment in new intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its activities in the Arctic region, the Russian military represents an ongoing direct security threat to the US.
Despite the geopolitical conflict, Russia and the US may be reluctant to escalate military action. Amid the escalating Ukraine-Russia conflict, the Turkish Foreign Ministry confirmed on Friday, April 9, 2021, that the US Navy would send two Arleigh Burke-class warships into the Black Sea via the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits from the Mediterranean Sea. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, the United States is required to provide Turkey 14 days of notice before deployment in the Black Sea, indicating that the decision was made on or before Thursday, March 25, 2021. Although US officials stated that such transits are routine, Russia had conducted military drills near the border two days prior, drawing the attention of the Pentagon and prompting a March 31 call between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. However, the US dropped these plans on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Along with Shoigu’s unexpected announcement regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, this suggests that both the US and Russia may be cautious in using military power towards increasing regional influence to avoid direct conflict with each other, preferring soft power strategies instead.
Additionally, there are ongoing efforts by Russia to continue improving its military capacity, which raises the threat of even more aggressive behavior by an even stronger Russian military in the future. Putin recently announced during his annual State of the Nation speech that his government planned to further increase investment in expanded military education, hypersonic weapons, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Simultaneously, Putin insisted that Russia wants peace and to pursue arms control agreements with the US. Putin's calls for peace and arms control agreements are most likely ingenuine as his government is simultaneously increasing its funding for hypersonic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of directly attacking the US. Additionally, the further buildup of the Russian military may provoke a further buildup of US military capacity, which would then likely lead to further buildup by Russia and may escalate into an arms race between the two countries reminiscent of the Cold War.
Despite Biden’s recent rhetoric calling for open dialogue between Washington and the Kremlin, and calls for a meeting between him and Putin, the economic relationship between the US and Russia is likely to continue to deteriorate. This is due to the Biden administration’s issuance of a wide range of sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its recent incursions against the US. These recent incursions most notably include Russia’s involvement in the SolarWinds cyber-espionage campaign and its interference in the 2020 presidential election to hurt Biden's candidacy and boost that of Trump. Biden has stated regarding the sanctions, that he "was clear with Putin that we could have gone further," and that he wanted a "stable, predictable relationship" with Russia, adding that “now is the time to de-escalate.” However, Biden simultaneously warned that any act of aggression taken by Russia would be met with a proportional response by the US.
These newly issued sanctions target more than thirty Russian entities, including both established Russian companies and state-controlled entities created by the FSB, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU), and the SVR. Sanctions against these types of entities are meant to weaken the Russian cyber operations ecosystem which is used to target the US. Additionally, the sanctions include the expulsion of at least ten Russian individuals from the US, including intelligence officials and diplomats. The Biden administration also issued an executive order barring American financial institutions from purchasing ruble-denominated bonds, which goes into effect in June 2021.
Given Biden’s rhetoric of calling for a de-escalation of tensions with Russia, it is likely that these sanctions are seen by the Biden administration as a proportional response to Russia’s recent incursions against the US. Biden has warned that any act of aggression by Russia would be met with a proportional US response. Because of this, it is very likely that if Russia were to respond to these sanctions in a way that the Biden administration views as aggressive, additional sanctions will be issued against them. There are strong indications that Russia is already reacting aggressively to these new sanctions, as the Kremlin has placed sanctions on 8 senior US administration officials, including FBI director, Christopher Wray, and Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, in retaliation. Additionally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that the Russian government will curb the activity of US nonprofit groups in Russia, impose new limits on American diplomats and diplomatic outposts in the country, and consider "painful" measures against American businesses in retaliation to these sanctions.
The NORTHCOM Team at CTG is working around the clock to monitor any incident or ongoing developments that may have implications for US national security. This includes the bilateral relationship between the US and Russia, as well as the individual relationship between Biden and Putin. Our team is working to provide analysis on the development of these relationships and their likely future implications on US national security. Additionally, our team is working to provide analysis on strategies that may be employed to de-escalate the ongoing tension between Russia and the US. As well as strategies to improve the countries’ bilateral relationship while simultaneously addressing US security threats emanating coming from Russia.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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