While Reaching out to Incoming US Administration, Kremlin Signals Resumption of Bilateral Arms Race

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 180

Putin's end of year press conference (Source: TASS)

In the wake of the December 14 vote by the Electoral College, which officially confirmed the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States and Kamala Harris as Vice President, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally, and reluctantly, congratulated the US President-elect. In November 2016, Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory; in 2020, he was apparently the last head of state of a major world power to extend the same gesture to Biden. Putin sent his congratulations via telegram, expressing hope that Moscow and Washington can work together constructively to solve global problems “despite their differences” (Interfax, December 15).

Today (December 17), the Russian president held his annual “big” end-of-year press conference, an event that, once again, lasted over four hours. This time, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held mostly online. During his remarks, Putin reiterated his hope of a constructive relationship with the incoming US administration and noted that Biden had previously stated he would prolong the New START nuclear arms control treaty, which expires on February 5, 2021. Another important point of interest to Putin and his subordinates is the nearly completed Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline, the construction of which was temporarily halted by US sanctions targeting European pipeline servicing and building companies. Nord Stream Two is designed to double Gazprom’s possible gas volumes transited directly to Germany, from Russia, under the Baltic Sea. It would run parallel to and double the 55 billion cubic meters per annum capacity of the preexisting Nord Stream One pipeline project. Nord Stream Two would allow Gazprom to stop pumping any more Europe-bound gas through Ukraine, thus providing Moscow an additional tool with which to pressure Kyiv. The pipeline has been strongly opposed by Poland, other Central European states and the European Commission; but it is defiantly promoted by Berlin and the German business sector, which is a major pro-Russian and pro-Putin lobbying force in Europe. According to Putin, Russia has “many, many friends in Germany.” Putin hopes Biden, who has expressed a desire to rebuild relationships with European allies, will drop the Trump administration’s sanctions against Nord Stream Two (more of which were just included in the recently passed Congressional 2021 defense authorization bill—see EDM, December 14), helping out the Kremlin leader and his allies (Kremlin.ru, December 17). Gazprom has sunk billions of dollars into almost completing Nord Stream Two, while Putin seems to have a personal interest in the state-controlled gas monopoly’s wellbeing.

Putin strongly rejects—as supposedly a US intelligence community provocation—the notion that Russian hackers supported Trump’s 2016 election prospects in any way as well as all other reports, past or present, of Russian state-sponsored hacking. And he rebukes charges of any other Russian mischief on the international stage, like using the Novichok nerve agent to poison anyone. Putin declared Moscow to be a “white and fluffy” force for good in the world while the US is bad, ugly, dark and aggressive. According to Putin, last August’s alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny by Novichok in Tomsk is a Western provocation and falsification. “If we really wanted to poison Navalny, he would have been dead,” Putin reasoned or darkly joked (Kremlin.ru, December 17).

In contrast, he praised Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “A real man [macho], who keeps his word and does not wag his tail.” While Putin and Erdoğan may have serious differences, the Russian president appreciates his Turkish counterpart’s steadfastness and predictability. Putin also believes he has strong personal chemistry with Chinese leader Xi Jinping—in addition to Russia and China having “identical interests in many different fields” (Interfax, December 17). At the same time, Putin saved a few nice words for the outgoing US head of state. Though losing reelection, Trump “received the votes of almost 50 percent of the population, has a strong base of support and apparently will continue to be an influential political figure,” Putin contended (Kremlin.ru, December 17).

Russia’s long-serving leader continues to express sentiments that suggest law and power stem primarily from the barrel of a gun—perhaps not surprising for a Russian man born at the tail end of Stalinism, in 1952, who made a career in the KGB, developed his political connections during the turbulent 1990s, and was promoted to lead the country in 1999 by a group of Kremlin insiders who tasked him with reconquering Chechnya in the second Chechen war. Putin was asked why he suddenly decided, in January 2020, to rewrite the 1993 Russian constitution, granting himself potentially 16 more years of unlimited power (until 2036). “We rejected those international [Western] norms by prioritizing our own,” spelled out Putin, “because now our army is one of the best in the world, and we can do as we please.” In 1993, Russia was weak, needed Western aid and was forced to adopt liberal norms in its constitution. In 1999, Russia could hardly gather 50,000 fighting men to invade Chechnya. Today, the country does not need Westerners to tell it what to do, Putin insisted (Kremlin.ru, December 17).

According to the Kremlin head, a new arms race is already in full swing, and the United States is fully to blame—after Washington scrapped the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, Moscow was forced to respond. Russia has been developing an array of superweapons, including various hyper-velocity innovations that are supposedly impossible to intercept. “The Americans have precision weapons but do not have hypersonic ones. Of course, they are developing them and catching up,” Putin claimed, “But when they do, we will be ready [with effective countermeasures].” The Russian president expressed confidence that the West and, specifically, the US archenemy have no recourse but to accept Russia as an equal entity and bargain for some quid pro quo (Kremlin.ru, December 17). But it remains to be seen just how fruitful such bargaining will be with a Biden White House.