04.02.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Biden Offers Russia Deep-seated Aggression and Confrontation

Construction site of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Germany

When the newly elected US president recently called his Russian counter-part and raised some “critical issues”, it became clear that Joe Biden’s foreign policy towards Russia in the next four years will be guided by a very traditional type of Russophobia that has been a part and parcel of US foreign policy for decades. The mainstream US media understood Biden’s call as the beginning of “confrontation” with Russia. It started when Biden raised the rotten question of “election meddling” that the Democrats have been raising ever since Hilary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 elections. What the reference to “meddling” indicates is that Biden plans to take US-Russia relations to the point where Russia is seen only as an “aggressor” and as a canny “interventionist.”

Reference to “meddling” could serve US interests in other ways as well. Specifically, it could be used and effectively deployed in other geo-political scenarios, including Ukraine and Europe. Europe is especially important for the US because Russia has been making steady inroads there through its Nord Stream -2 gas pipeline project. By declaring Russia an “aggressor” and “interventionist”, the US hopes to pull Europe back.

Therefore, while Joe Biden is seeking a five-year extension with Russia on the only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, he has also initiated an intelligence inquiry into “Russian activities.” A senior US officials was quoted to have said that the intention was to “hold Russia accountable for their reckless and aggressive actions that we’ve seen in recent months and years.” As it stands, the only way the US can hold Russia “accountable” is through sanctions. What the Biden administration is, therefore, planning is a new phase of fresh sanctions to keep US-Russia relations cold enough to prevent an easy future convergence between Russia and Europe beyond Nord Stream 2 project.

Therefore, as it stands, the Biden administration has started an outright assault on Russia days after assuming power. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has been authorized to provide Biden a full intelligence assessment of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2020 election, use of chemical weapons against Alexei Navalny and bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Biden’s secretary of state Antony Blinken recently told the US lawmakers that sanctions passed by Congress to target Moscow will be “extremely helpful in being able to impose costs and consequences” on Russia. Blinken even told the Senate during his confirmation hearing that he supported providing lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia and inviting Georgia, a former Soviet republic, to join NATO.

Blinken’s approach appears in perfect harmony with what the Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who acknowledged in this confirmation hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that the Biden administration identifies with the 2018 US National Defence Strategy, which characterizes Russia (and China) in adversarial terms as a revisionist power that the US must counter using all available means.

Accordingly, Biden’s pick for Victoria Nuland as undersecretary of state for political affairs signifies shows how the new president is assembling a team of Russia hawks around him. Victoria is known to be a staunch advocate of an aggressive policy towards Russia and wants to “pin” it down.

In an article that she wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine last February, she made the case for “pinning Putin down” in order for the US to lead the world and limit the extent to which Russia can exert itself. Proposing a crude interventionist approach, Victoria said that the US leadership “should also resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and [the US leaders should] speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they have paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.”

Explaining why the US needs to follow an aggressive policy towards Russia, she argued:

“Russia has violated arms control treaties; fielded new, destabilizing weapons; threatened Georgia’s sovereignty; seized Crimea and much of the Donbass; and propped up despots in Libya, Syria, and Venezuela. It has used cyberweapons against foreign banks, electrical grids, and government systems; interfered in foreign democratic elections; and assassinated its enemies on European soil.”

Therefore, the most important challenge for the US and its allies in Europe in 2021 is to “lead the democracies of the world in crafting a more effective approach to Russia—one that builds on their strengths and puts stress on Putin where he is vulnerable, including among his own citizens.”

The Biden administration’s approach to Russia is rooted in a key foreign policy concept of Joe Biden: making American a leading global power. In the past four years of Trump administration, America is seen to have lost a lot of ground to Russia and China. Joe Biden, during his election campaign, promised to recover the ground; hence, his aggressive postures.

While it is not clear as to how an aggressive policy towards Russia will help the US get its lost status, following an aggressive policy still sends a message to the US allies in Europe about the US bid to prevent Russia from developing its foothold in Europe and elsewhere.

While it is ironic to see how the path leading to US global role goes through an aggressive foreign policy towards Russia, there is no gainsaying that Russophobia is deep-seated in the US, particularly among the Democrats. A 2020 Pew survey showed that about 84 per cent of the Democrats and democratic-leaning independents believe that Russia would interfere in US elections in 2020. 65 per cent of the Democrats said that Russia was a major threat.

Accordingly, the Biden administration’s plans vis-à-vis Russia largely reflect what Biden’s party itself believes and would want the president to do i.e., follow and an aggressive and confrontationist policy towards what they believe is a major threat to the US interests worldwide.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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