​The first conversation between Putin and Biden: Between collision and pragmatic collaboration



By by Ksenia Svetlova​​ | February 12, 2021

Vladimir Putin
Photos: kremlin.ru


After four blissful years with Trump at the White House, Russia is starting to grow accustomed to a new reality and president. This one has well-formed opinions about Russian leadership, and is determined to lead an entirely different policy than that of his predecessor.


In the first conversation held between Biden and Putin this week, the change of direction was already illustrated. The call was initiated by the White House; however, during their dialogue, many issues emerged about which the new U.S. president was adamant, such as the war in the Ukraine, the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Russian hackers' attack against U.S. institutions, and the alleged bounty paid to Taliban members for U.S. troops. This conversation, which Russian media reported was "of a direct, business-like nature", showed that Biden had no intention of demanding less of his Russian counterpart; even if he is not looking for friction, he will not hide his criticism of Russian conduct.


Nevertheless, the two leaders also discussed cooperating in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. They agreed to extend the New Start agreement limiting the long-term production of nuclear weapons. While in office, President Trump had refused to extend it claiming it was "full of holes", but changed his mind two weeks before leaving the White House, leaving the decision up to his successor.


The first conversation between the two leaders, as well as the initial statements made by the newly-appointed members of Biden's administration, attest to the fundamental change U.S. policy vis à vis Russia will be undergoing, which will probably impact Israel too.



Weapons of mass destruction:


President Trump had often humorously referred to the "red button" he possesses, and for four years refused to commit to extending the validity of the New Start agreement – the only one to limit the two countries' strategic nuclear arsenal. Putin and Obama had last extended it about a decade ago. This development was portrayed in Russian media as a Russian "victory", as Moscow was always in favor of extending this agreement. However, it also meets Washington's strategic need to prevent the nuclear race, and limit the number of nuclear warheads. Even when U.S.-Russia relations get derailed, America believes in the need to implement a regime of nuclear control and transparency. This need would not be possible without returning to the New Start – so although Russia continues to lament Trump's departure, and express its discontent about the new senior officials appointed having formerly been part of President Obama's team, they are also glad that the current U.S. president understands and values the importance of strategic international agreements.


Perhaps it is in this important struggle against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that Putin's Russia and Biden's U.S. can work together, despite their many disagreements in other areas. This collaboration is expected to contribute greatly to global stability and calm with respect to this significant strategic issue.



The joint fight against COVID-19


The joint fight against the spread of COVID-19 is also seen by Biden and Putin as an area in which they can join forces, despite mutual suspicion. The nature of this collaboration is not yet clear; however, both presidents share close and sober views with regard to the implications of the virus on health and the economy. They share the same insights, whereby, if the fight will not be global it will not be won in the foreseeable future. Unlike Trump, president Joe Biden believes in the need to bolster the international organizations, such as the World Health Organization and global partnerships, who could lead to the desired effect. Here, too, he is expected to find support in Moscow.


Human rights, cybersecurity and policy in the post-Soviet sphere
While clearly looking for opportunities and windows of collaboration with Moscow, President Biden has also demonstrated in his first conversation with President Putin that he is not afraid of expressing his dissatisfaction with Russia's conduct.


One of the first names that came up during the conversation between the two leaders was Alexei Navalny – the unofficial Russian opposition leader poisoned several months ago, who has now recovered. Navalny was treated in Germany, and arrested upon his return to his homeland. Putin views him as a threat, despite his current inability to set the wheels of the "Russian Spring", from which Moscow is so worried, in motion. The recent protests, held in some 60 Russian cities, were only attended by 200,000–250,000 people – no small number by all accounts, but still significantly lower than the number of participants in the large demonstrations held between 2011 and 2013. Nevertheless, Moscow is still concerned about Navalny, whose persistent and consistent activity has turned him into a well-known opposition figure worldwide, and the second most recognizable Russian politician. Even if he cannot compete with Putin in Russia itself, or pose a political threat to the current president, he is perceived as one outside Russia, and now that the Biden Age has begun, Putin will undoubtedly hear Navalny's name mentioned again.


Human rights and freedom of expression are expected to be part of President Biden's new policy. Statements made by his team members reveal that Russia will be paying a price for hurting oppositionists and journalists, and that the White House intends to follow developments in Russia very closely.


The Russian government's cyber activity, as well as that of its proxies, is also gaining some of the new U.S. administration's special attention. Biden is still traumatized by the Democrats' accusation that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential elections. For this reason, one of the issues that emerged during his conversation with President Putin was the recent big cyberattack, Solarwinds, attributed to Russia.
But Russian policymakers' greatest concern is, of course, U.S. intervention in the post-Soviet sphere – from the Ukraine to Georgia. As soon as his appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said he supported Georgia joining NATO "as soon as it meets the criteria". This statement immediately caused alarm at the Kremlin.


In his conversation with President Putin, President Biden also touched upon the matter of the Ukraine, warning his Russian counterpart against the implementation of a forceful, violent policy that will continue to infringe upon Ukrainian sovereignty. The Ukraine expects the U.S. president to help it regain its status, and protect it from its large neighbor. At the same time, Biden is also known for his campaign against money laundering, which is expected to lead him to restrain Ukrainian corruption and oligarchs. This campaign globally and in the Middle East is due to become one of the new administration's flagships. It seems that Israel has also turned into somewhat of a safe haven for Jewish moguls worldwide who are attempting to utilize local loose AML laws, and is therefore expected to feel the new U.S. administration's pressure in that area too. Israel's ties to Russian oligarchs who are on the American sanctions list or about to be included in it will also be tested.



The Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan


Even before he was elected president, Joe Biden had made his policy on U.S. military presence in places such as Afghanistan and Syria very clear. His approach combines the American desire to reduce military forces overseas, while strictly protecting U.S. strategic interests. During the first week of his presidency, Biden ordered an examination into the decision that U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan in light of the fact that the Afghan Taliban had yet to sever its ties with Al Qaeda, and was becoming stronger in Afghan territory. At the time, Moscow welcomed Trump's September 2020 decision to have all American forces return home, and news of the Taliban receiving bounty from Russia for killing American troops was heard. Obviously, the Biden administration will now review every decision made by Trump and his team with regard to U.S. military presence and activity overseas, overturning some of them. Russia has already warned of increased friction between the two armies in north-east Syria, but Biden will probably seek another course of limited collaboration with Russia on the ground for a shared cause such as defeating the Islamic State that is rearing its head yet again in Deir ez-Zor and other areas in Syria.


Iran is another issue on which Biden and Putin are expected to work together, as both believe Iranian nuclear activity may be reduced using diplomacy. The two of them also strive to draft a new nuclear deal. For Russia (and Europe), such an agreement would open a window of opportunity for tighter collaboration with Iran while enabling oversight of its nuclear sites, as Russia shares a maritime border with Iran, and is considered its "neighbor".


However, with respect to Turkey, on whom the U.S. will probably impose some sanctions due to its acquisition of advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems, Moscow will be taking the opposite approach, remaining impassive as Ankara-Washington relations deteriorate. Turkey and Russia are already discussing new arms deals, impeding the robustness of NATO (of which Turkey is a member), as well as Turkey's relations with the West. Although Turkey was not mentioned in Biden's and Putin's first conversation, both of them are expected to devote considerable time and attention to the competition over the Turkish knight on the Middle Eastern chess board.





New U.S. President Joe Biden does not fear conflict with Russia on fronts he rates as most important – cybersecurity, human rights violations, support of post-Soviet states, and anti-money laundering. Nevertheless, he is also expected to strive for collaboration with it in other areas, such as overseeing and minimizing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the battle against COVID-19, and the Iranian nuclear deal. Biden has made his intentions clear during the first week of his presidency both by the executive orders he signed, and the issues he raised in his conversation with Putin.
Israel would do well to be attentive and aware of the change in policy it will soon be required to make, as it was aligned to that of the Trump administration, but probably will not be as well-suited to Biden's. Israel must not risk its strategic relations with the U.S., its most important ally in the world, and is advised to conduct itself cautiously and responsibly so as not to harm them, but further strengthen them instead.




Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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