Russia received notably high attention in United States President Joseph Biden’s first foreign policy speech, delivered at the State Department last Thursday, February 4. President Vladimir Putin may take pride in earning a personal mention and a place ahead of China; although the latter was specifically recognized as the US’s top peer competitor, while Russia was characterized mainly as the world’s foremost troublemaker (Izvestia, February 5). Biden asserted he is taking a tougher tone with Moscow compared to his predecessor but said he also has to deal with a rather different Putin. Indeed, the accumulation of authoritarian tendencies, exorbitant corruption and aggressive behavior in recent years has produced a new quality to Putin’s maturing autocratic regime, making it less liable to be moved by criticism coming out of Washington.
Prior to the priority-setting speech, Biden and the State Department had at least three times demanded the release of Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia’s democratic opposition. Navalny was arrested on January 17, immediately upon his return from Germany, where he had been recuperating from the August 2020 attempt on his life with the nerve agent Novichok (see EDM, February 4). Each time the US raised the issue, Putin opted to respond with harsher repressions against street protests so that tens of thousands of people across the country were imprisoned and every office of Navalny’s unregistered party was shut down (VTimes, February 3). Biden’s promise to make Russia pay for its transgressions of international norms is perceived in Moscow as hollow and rejected as an “overtone of ultimatum” (RIA Novosti, February 5). The working assumption in the Kremlin is that the ongoing reassessment of US policy toward Russia will simply produce recommendations on fine-tuning sanctions, so it is essential to demonstrate that this instrument of policy is ineffectual (Valdaiclub.com, January 31).
Underpinning this Russian assumption is Biden’s stated commitment to work together with allies in countering Moscow’s aggressive moves. Putin’s oligarchs believe that there is little if any interest in Europe to curtail the remaining ties with Russia by passing new sanctions (Kommersant, February 5). The day after Biden’s State Department speech, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, traveled to Moscow, seeking to explore opportunities for engagement (Svoboda.org, February 4). Yet the visit produced an embarrassing fiasco: during the talks, the Russian foreign ministry announced the expulsion of diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden, accusing them of partaking in the pro-Navalny protests (RBC, February 5). This demarche might weaken the preference for cultivating dialogue with Russia advocated by many populist European politicians and convince EU leaders to strengthen the elements of containment of their menacing neighbor at the special summit scheduled for late March (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 2).
The Kremlin could actually welcome a toughening of the confrontation since this would better fit its new resolve to brutally crush the domestic opposition, which the authorities accuse of being a Western-controlled “fifth column” (see EDM, Forbes.ru, February 4). Putin has moved away from his trademark populism and resolved to rule by fear rather than by earning public support (Rosbalt, February 3). The erosion of his popularity amidst protracted economic stagnation was, indeed, inevitable; but the effective suppression of protests by superior police force can secure passive acceptance of ongoing autocratic rule by the former loyal majority (Newsru.com, February 5). The main problem for this regime hardening is the younger generation, which rejects the archaic conservatism of the Putinist system and has repeatedly proven itself unwilling to be subdued by police violence (Znak.com, February 4). Navalny connects well with this discontented group and relies on online social networks, which the authorities have sought to coopt but are unable to censor, to spread his message of peaceful resistance against the thoroughly corrupt predatory regime (Levada.ru, February 5).
Western support is necessary for sustaining this resistance and giving hope of a better future to the participating students, who face the threat of expulsion from their colleges; but it also ironically adds credibility to the official Russian propaganda, which portrays the protesters as “foreign agents” and decries the US “interference” in Russia’s internal affairs (Meduza.io, February 3). One way around this dilemma is to target new sanctions precisely at the beneficiaries of Putin’s monopolization of state power, who worry about their fortunes that they earlier evacuated for safekeeping in Western banks and real estate (Forbes.ru, February 1). When the likes of Arkady Rotenberg—who claims, rather dubiously, that the famous Gelendzhik palace on the Black Sea coast belongs to him and not to Putin—are treated like Colombian drug lords, doubts among business and bureaucratic elites can turn into desertions and defections (Republic.ru, January 31).
Another option of putting pressure on Putin’s regime can be found in the forthcoming talks on strategic stability. The Biden administration moved fast to resolve the issue by extending the New START nuclear arms treaty, but Moscow wants new negotiations that would affirm its status as a “great power” equal to the United States at least in one respect (Valdaiclub.com, February 5). Russia has invested so much in developing new nuclear weapons and has advertised them so loudly that the goal of making this arsenal useful for political purposes becomes a major priority (Izvestia, February 7). The traditional method of “linkage,” which makes discussions on matters of high importance for the adversary conditional on concessions in unrelated but essential problems, might become effectual again (Carnegie.ru, February 1). Arms control in the era of instant exposure of missteps presents many difficult challenges, and Putin has proven himself an entirely untrustworthy counterpart; but the accumulated risks of nuclear brinkmanship cannot be neglected any longer.
Political dynamics in Russia have accelerated, so the Biden team’s policy review might produce some recommendations that lag behind the fast-moving crisis of governance. The US’s relations with China will also need to be guided by a sound strategy, but the approach to Russia is more likely to require a readiness to respond to convoluted chains of events. High-level communications will hardly be of much help as Putin is increasingly prone to swings from over-confidence to overreaction. Moreover, his access to information is reduced by the continuing self-isolation, which empowers the emboldened and feuding security services (siloviki) to act on their own. Biden must deal with overlapping domestic and global crises of extraordinary complexity, and he seeks to reduce Russia to a medium-low priority by swiftly delivering due punishment for Moscow’s past crimes and misdemeanors. Russia, however, retains the capacity and propensity to propel itself again to the top of its rivals’ extra-urgent matters.