Global Pairings, Rethinking America

Biden: Appeasing Putin?

Putin’s little PR bluster games shows how much Russia has declined in the global league tables of geopolitical relevance. Why Joe Biden won’t take Putin’s bait.

Takeaways


  • Electronic hacking or troop movements are the last cards through which Russia can make a mark in international affairs
  • One can’t fault Biden for playing it safe and diffusing tensions, even at the price of handing a partial psychological victory to Putin.
  • The widespread recognition in Washington is that there is nothing a U.S. leader can do to alter Russia’s behavior.
  • The U.S. military-industrial complex doesn’t need Russia as a storybook menace any longer. China fully suffices.
  • Russia is a country with an inalterably desolate population and a continuously oppressive leadership.
  • Reagan’s success in Gorbachev “tearing down this wall” can be chalked down to an old adage in politics: Half of one’s success is showing up at the right time.
  • What the world is witnessing in Russia is the North Koreanization of the once proud and mighty Russia or the Kim-ification of the Putin regime.
  • Enjoying one’s billions away from Western luxury resorts ain’t particularly cool. Especially if you end up stuck in Russia.
  • To Russia’s chagrin, it is no longer military might but technological and economic prowess that defines power.

After publicly calling Putin a murderer, President Joe Biden promptly phoned him and proposed a meeting. Biden’s overture occurred no sooner than the Russian President had amassed his troops on Ukraine’s borders and threatened a military escalation.

Biden soon after imposed sanctions on Russia for hacking into U.S. government agencies. Still, Russia’s official media gloated over Biden’s apparent weakness and promoted the impression that he caved in to Putin’s pressure tactics.

Toying with the new President?

But is this really a case of Mr. Putin once again being appeased, after four years of hearing Donald Trump fawn on Putin and sing him praises?

The only way in which Russia can make a mark in international affairs these days seems to be through electronic hacking or troop movements. Those kinds of aggressive maneuvers apparently are the last card held by a formerly grand nation in its desire to get “respect.”

Putin bluffing in Ukraine

Of course, Putin was merely bluffing in Ukraine. He wasn’t going to stage an all-out attack on Kyiv — and the Biden Administration knew it perfectly well.

And yet, rattling Russia’s rusty military hardware could have easily gotten out of control and Biden simply can’t afford a major international crisis at this point of his presidency.

Imbalanced economy

The United States, while doing much better than Europe, has not yet overcome the COVID19 pandemic. The U.S. economy has rebounded, but is in a somewhat precarious state. In order for it to get to take-off stage, Biden must see through his ambitious domestic policy agenda.

However, his infrastructure agenda is facing dogged opposition from the Republicans in the U.S. Congress. They claim government waste, when what they really don’t want is a Democratic President campaigning in 2022 and perhaps 2024 as a major job creator.

Not even the fact that the infrastructure program matters greatly with regard to the long-term contest with China is likely to move Republican votes.

The Biden-Putin dance

In this climate, one can’t fault Biden for playing it safe and diffusing tensions, even at the price of handing a partial psychological victory to Putin.

Especially since strategically Putin has won nothing. A phone call from Biden doesn’t mean that the United States is about to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or stop supporting Ukraine.

Inalterable Russia

In addition, after decades of trying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition in Washington that there is nothing a U.S. leader can do to fundamentally alter Russia’s behavior.

That this recognition is becoming more public now is likely closely related to the fact that the U.S. military-industrial complex just doesn’t need Russia that much as a storybook menace any longer. China fully suffices to trigger Congressional readiness for defense spending.

There is a widening U.S. sentiment how much stuck in a rut Russia really is. It seems to be a country with an inalterably desolate population and a continuously oppressive leadership.

Ronnie’s hollow toughness

Given its amazingly pro-Moscow leanings, the Republicans are ever less adamant to hold up the example of Ronald Reagan as a standard bearer of toughness directed at Moscow.

True, Reagan is widely credited with defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But that is a flawed perspective.

Reagan’s success in Gorbachev “tearing down this wall” can be chalked down to one of the oldest adages in politics: At least half of one’s success is showing up at the right time.

Russia’s collapse happened at home, for entirely domestic reasons.

Russia caught in its own miserable orbit

No matter which sanctions Washington imposes, Russia will continue to support separatists in eastern Ukraine. And it will jail and torture domestic critics like Alexey Navalny and create mischief around the world, including poisoning its former citizens on foreign soil.

What the world is witnessing in Russia is the North Koreanization of the once proud and mighty Russia. With a hat tip to that desolate country’s ruling family, one could also call it the Kim-ification of the Putin regime.

Hitting Putin’s cronies?

Even hitting Putin and his entourage with personal sanctions at least won’t make them any poorer either: They will compensate their economic losses by squeezing their own people a bit harder.

The only thing that would have an effect is to essentially bar all of Putin’s cronies and their wider clans from even entering the West, to go to their luxury villas on the Cote d’Azur or what have you.

Enjoying one’s billions away from Western luxury resorts ain’t particularly cool. Especially if you end up stuck in Russia.

A fringe economy

New U.S. sanctions now ban U.S. banks from handling new Russian sovereign debt. They are designed to keep Russia isolated on the fringes of the world economy.

In today’s world, to Russia’s chagrin, it is no longer military might but technological and economic prowess that defines power.

This is part of the equation why an all-out invasion of Ukraine has always been too risky for Putin. Not only because there was a very good chance that it wouldn’t have been successful.

Russia’s conventional forces are not especially well-equipped, trained or led. And they are certainly not very motivated.

In a recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia-armed Armenians were soundly defeated by Azeris who were armed by modern Western weaponry. A similar humiliation would have awaited Putin if he had tried to invade Ukraine.

Biden’s waiting game

All of that suits Joe Biden just fine. He can afford to wait. Having Putin gloat in his propaganda media on the supposed PR defeat he has inflicted on Biden is a clear sign of very a small mind playing for scraps.

Biden can return to deal with Putin at a later date, after he sorts out more pressing problems at home, without any fear that Russia would grow either stronger or richer in the meantime.

That assessment must be the ultimate letdown for Putin.

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About Alexei Bayer

Alexei Bayer is a Senior Editor at The Globalist, based in New York. [United States]

About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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