16.04.2021 Author: Henry Kamens

Is Softer US Policy on Russia Even Possible?


Presidential appointments can be revealing, not only in terms of those who are appointed but of those who are passed over, or kept in the shadows. One case in point is not breaking news, but nevertheless revealing, as is seen by the title of a recent MSM news article.

Biden eyes Russia adviser criticized as soft on Kremlin, as the article puts it. It claims that President Biden is considering appointing Matthew Rojansky, head of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, as Russia director on the National Security Council.

It is an understatement to say that the US-Russian relationship is very multi-faceted. Much like the Turkish-Russian relationship, there is collaboration in some areas but competition and antagonism in others.

But what does the nomination of Rojansky actually mean, considering that the Kennan Institute is one of the world’s premier think tanks on Russia, and is not closing ranks with the usual promoters of the Russian-bashing agenda? Rojansky previously served as Deputy Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another more amenable body from a Russian point of view. So are we seeing a shift in US policy towards Russia?

Not Any Old Enemy

Biden is faced with some challenges which will make him question even his own foreign policy rhetoric now he is in the White House, and especially his own track record.

As the New Yorker writes, “In no foreign policy area is the rhetorical contrast between the last US President, who openly fawned over Putin, and the current one, who disdains him, more significant.” However the US-Russian relationship tends to h ave quite widespread, even global consequences (though not to the scale of the US-Soviet fallouts during the Cold War).

For the last four years Russia bashing was no longer about political differences but implicating Trump in involvement in some “real or perceived scheme”. So the US has to decide if it wants to move beyond rhetoric designed for domestic purposes and actually face the challenge of dealing with what Russia actually does in the real world. Hence Rojansky.

Some hawkish positions previously taken as defaults are no longer sustainable. On a number of issues there can be true collaboration: climate change, the International Space Station, terrorism. But Rojansky will be just one voice among many when it comes to dealing with the Kremlin. No doubt the White House will have others weighing in as well.

Let us not forget that one of the main reasons that Biden was VP under Biden Obama was [allegedly] his foreign policy experience. Being soft is what diplomacy should be about in the wake of the last several presidents. But Biden is poised to continue the previous tradition – indeed, the emphasis placed on his foreign policy experience means he has been anointed to do so.

It would be nice to believe that the new administration actually believes that America is back. If it is, it will have the self-assurance to be more diplomatic, and enter back into treaties and agreements Trump pulled it out of, Open Skies, Iran deal, etc.

If this is done, it will only be to spite Trump and his supporter. Biden has no intention of changing US policy, merely to find a front which will enable him to present the same old hostility as liberal and enlightened more like it should be from Democrats than what it actually is.

All Mouth With Someone Else’s Trousers

Michael Carpenter from the Biden Center at Penn State may be the real Russian policy advisor. There are others such as Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, two long-time Biden aides from the Obama Administration. They have “been busy figuring out how to re-legitimize America in the eyes of the world,” but legitimacy is one of those high-sounding principles, like democracy, which people only need to go on about when it isn’t actually there.

Biden has not begun as if he will respect the views of Rojanski. He has continued the Bush and Obama policy of engaging Russia on all fronts, and much sooner than expected. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline dispute is one example, and this is also souring relations with Germany.

Biden likes to come off like Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, all “Make-My-Day”. One only needs to look at the nexus with the Jamestown Foundation board of directors to see that in theory Russia policy will still be very aggressive. Biden is more in the mind-set of American Sniper, in actuality, and we know that this comparison has a basis in Ukraine dating back to 2014. He should be a card carrying member of the NRA.

Reset or Destruct Button

Biden worked behind the scenes against the Obama-style “reset”. It might be worth checking out some of these comments and see where they lead, besides the Uranium One transaction and back to the Clinton Foundation.

US foreign policy being out of control has far-reaching implications, and these can turn already complicated regions of the world all the more. The situation in Ukraine, Syria, and some other conflicts can likely involve Israel and the use of Saudi Arabian proxy forces, directly and indirectly, especially in terms of funding and military hardware.

Already at the end of February we are hearing defensive-retaliatory rhetoric, the same heard during Vietnam, where it was described as protective-reaction, in terms of responding to the legal authority for American airstrikes. “Assad is a brutal dictator but Syria is a sovereign country”, said Jen Psaki – let’s see what she really says in the follow up to illegal US actions.

The purported bombing of Hezbollah sites is one of the main reasons Israel was so supportive of Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia, as any major attack on Iran needs a border to cross. Neither are Biden and his policymakers friends of Turkey. However, Biden has personally made his views on the regime there well known. That may be backfiring soon.

At some point younger leaders will have to come forward in both the US parties. McConnell and Pelosi are both quite old, and their policies are not far apart, being similarly anti-Russian. Being anti-Russian is well-rooted in the American mindset, not that they know much about Russia or the former Soviet Union to have a real cause for their disdain.

So the old guard is doing everything it can to entrench policy and resource commitments to justify previous mistakes—especially policy missteps. Just as anyone can be a great philanthropist with someone else’s money, anyone can be a hawk if they don’t have to live with the consequences afterwards.

It will be difficult to get a consensus on who should be appointed to head Russia policy. Some of the best in HR terms, Russian speakers from previous administrations with the background needed to normalise relations with Russia are no longer around. They have either left government for the private sector or retired, leaving vacancies to be filled by the most politically desirable “wannabes” rather than the best qualified people.

Despite all the proclamations of how Biden was going to be different, he instead serves up a geopolitical dog’s breakfast. It is no wonder that even the Democrats want to remove the nuclear option from him. The Party of War is back in the Oval Office with a vengeance.

Bulldogs to Pit Bulls

The problem with all of this is that it is not only a domestic US matter what its Russia policy is. All US allies have to fall into line to retain US support. For some this is easy, for some the attempt raises serious questions about their future which the US isn’t interested in hearing about.

In the minds of the recycled advisors from previous Democratic administrations, Russian political gains over being an honest broker in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan have to be offset. It could do this by being a better honest broker itself. Instead it tries to undermine its own allies by making hatred of Russia for the sake of it a virtue.

Amongst many other pet projects, the Biden administration has selected Georgia for spotlight review, as it is accused of not hating Russians enough. If the US wanted to help Georgia remove the Russians from what Tbilisi considers its territory it would do so.

It seems you can get away with anything as long as you pretend, but nothing if you actually try and accomplish something. This tells you all you need to know about how the US actually views its allies.

Weapons are already being poured into Georgia and Ukraine to make complications all the more complicated, and provide a test of the Russian hating credentials of those governments. US policy towards its allies is a variant of the old mock newspaper headline “Kill an Argie, Win a Metro”. Why countries which are already on bad terms with Russia need to be questioned over it only makes sense to those who do not want to find answers for anything, only frame increasingly loud and syllogistic questions.

Actual American Foreign Policy?

Biden pretends to be liberal and holds high values, but he is the closest to a mafia guy that you can get. If he actually changed US foreign policy, he and too many of his friends would swiftly find themselves on the wrong side of contemporary opinion as well as history, and no US president is going to voluntarily put himself there.

The US election fell in the middle of the increase in hostilities in Azerbaijan over Karabakh. Biden was mum on that. Was this foreign policy judgment, expediency, or unwillingness to upset the wrong people behind the scenes?

If this is any indication of the resolve of US policy to offset Russian gains, more instability will be the result. Biden’s people will be more actively involved in stirring problems with Turkey, Syria and Iran, unless some real changes are made in staff, and all this is aimed at Russia, not those countries.

Turkey has a larger than ever role to play in regional stability, as it has the largest standing army in NATO. Little can be threatened under the guise of NATO without Turkey’s support and military might. Yet even Turkey, already not one of Biden’s favourite countries, is being expected to prove its anti-Russian orientation, implying that NATO might be used against other NATO members, actual or aspirant, who don’t meet today’s standard of Russophobia, even if they have always meet every other.

Too many experts are making a cottage industry of Russian bashing, and this has been allowed to happen because it serves a broader policy agenda over which there is a general consensus. The content of what is said or done is irrelevant.

It would be too difficult for them to change their MO, as Russian bashing made them “experts” in the first place, and these are the people Biden is deferring to, whose presence Rojanski is trying to disguise. Once there was Steven Cohen, a lone voice in the wilderness, but he is dead, and that voice silenced. He was one of the most controversial Russian experts in America, and shared his views openly.

He described in his last book, War with Russia, “how since 2014 US-Russian relations were becoming more dangerous than they had ever been before—and then became worse by the allegations known as Russiagate.”

The point of appointing Matthew Rojanski to the White House team would be to put a “scientific” spin on a policy far from scientific or reasoned. The “sane, moderate voice” will not change US policy, merely make it sound inevitable rather than reactionary, a metaphorical turn from red to blue disguised as red which Biden himself, long distrusted by other Democrats for his moderation, is held to represent.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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