Prominent scholars and political analysts have devoted a lot of time to evaluate the achievements and challenges of the Joe Biden administration after his first year in the White House.
Most of them agree on the difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the immunization of Americans; the political polarization of the country; the internal confrontation between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party; inflation and the skyrocketing prices of fuels; the complexity of the proposed migration reform and the poor negotiation capabilities of Kamala Harris as a distant Vice President from Biden – as opposed to the closeness seen between Obama and Biden in 2009-2016.
In the international arena, many look at Biden as a relief, after the confrontational Trump administration. Biden has put America as a frontrunner on negotiations on climate change; dismissed the proposed withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) announced by his predecessor; healed relations with allies; and proposed to pay in full arrears to the United Nations. Those actions prevented the boat from sinking, but Biden has been unable to restore America as a leading actor in international relations. Why?
While Trump was at the White House, many things were happening in the world: Russia was reaffirming its presence not only in what it is called the “near abroad” but has been determined to prevent neighboring countries like the Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), no matter the cost. Even though the annexation of Crimea happened before the arrival of Trump to the presidency, the intervention of Putin in the 2016 US elections meant Moscow was willing to play its cards to favor the ascendance of what it looked like a political ally. Apparently, it worked: during the Trump administration, Putin was never attacked neither criticized by the US President. More interesting is to know that every time Trump and Putin got together, their meetings developed behind closed doors, with no one else present and extreme secrecy leading to concerns about the nature of the issues at play. Some speculated that Trump, well before becoming President, tried to make business with Russia and build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Thus, Trump had economic and commercial interests in Russia that required the blessing of Putin -not kidding, this is what Stephen Schlesinger claims in an article of September 2020 (https://www.passblue.com/2020/09/14/trumps-mysterious-relationship-with-putin/).
But apart from the “Russia issue” another changed took place during the Trump administration: China became a major power. The more Trump fought against the Asian giant, the more Beijing was able to increase its influence in the entire planet – after all, if you have trouble having business with America you can still trade and invest in the rest of the world, right? The “One Belt, One Road” initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 with its two axes – linking Europe and China through countries with Eurasia and India, and also links with Africa, Latin America and Oceania – well before the arrival of Trump, was in place as a response to growing tensions with the US.
That said, when Biden arrived to the White House he entered the Oval Office and found comfortably sitting in his couch two unwanted guests: on the one hand China, already established as a great power, contesting the US leadership in the world; and on the other Russia, reaffirming its status as a regional power, challenging the expansion of NATO in what once was the Soviet sphere of influence, but most of all, recalling the US that Moscow must be taken into consideration as a very important player in the international arena.
Relations between the US and China would deserve a more profound analysis – coming soon. But speaking about relations between Washington and Moscow, one may want to take a look at the context in which they have developed under the Biden administration. To start with, in March 2020, in an interview, the US President called Putin a “killer” and added he would pay the consequences for interfering in the 2020 presidential elections. Well, not a good start, right? Putin recalled its Washington Ambassador for consultations and Biden called also the US Ambassador to Moscow for consultations too. Later the two Ambassadors returned to their diplomatic missions, once Biden explained Putin why he called him a “killer.” Nice, huh? They met on June 16, 2021, in Geneva and had a “constructive” and “substantive dialogue” according to Putin on issues such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), the situation in Ukraine and human rights. It looked like a “business as usual” meeting.
But something happened between then and now that changed the geopolitics and the US position in international relations: the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan by the end of August and the end of the Merkel era in Germany. Let’s begin with Afghanistan. Yes, it is true that the withdrawal process began during the Trump administration, and that after 20 years – since the 9/11 attacks – the US has not succeeded in making Afghanistan a prosperous and democratic country, not to mention the failure in fighting terrorism in the region. Yet, the withdrawal of American troops amidst chaos at the Kabul airport showed the Taliban returning triumphant to power, sending the devastating message that “the US and its allies failed. Period.” Of course, a defeated United States is the image many see inside and outside the country, and blame Biden for it. To Russia, a country previously humiliated in Afghanistan during the Gorbachov years, a weak Biden generates a vacuum of power that, why not? Russia could fill.
By the end of last year, Putin had deployed or redistributed troops and equipment in the border with Ukraine, a tactical movement in the regional chessboard that clearly neither Biden nor his NATO allies could let go without protesting. The US insisted that any possible attack to Ukraine would have enormous consequences for Russia. As tensions grew, some have suggested the sending of blue helmets to Ukraine, but, wait a minute: Ukraine is not Cyprus and besides, the deployment of a peacekeeping mission must go through the United Nations Security Council where Russia, with its veto power, could dismiss.
What is Biden’s and Russia’s best bet as a result of this crisis?. Let’s take a look at Biden. After one year in the presidency, he doesn’t look good. He seems isolated from his own party, and with a vice president whose skills on key issues seem very limited. To many he still behaves as a Senator, not as the President. Biden’s approval ratings are 43% – and those who disapprove are 49%, almost half of Americans.
Now let’s take a look at Putin. He is having a hard time with the pandemic – more than 11 million confirmed cases and 320 844 diseases so far. The GDP fell in the first year of the pandemic, but not as dramatically as in other countries (-2.9% in 2020, against -3.64 in the US and -8.3 in Mexico). Despite sanctions applied against Russia since the annexation – or “reunification” as Russian authorities call it – of Crimea, the economy has experienced difficulties, but apparently this has not been fatal. The enormous reserves of oil and gas play a role. The country has also bought enormous quantities of gold, which provides a relief for its treasury. There were even rumors of Russia adopting a gold-ruble parity exchange rate, which would stabilize the economy. One additional issue to be considered: Russia has a very manageable external debt: most of it is private, so Russia has a very interesting room of maneuver. But of course, things could be better if sanctions go away, although sanctions have been applied to Russia and the Soviet Union for a long time, and the country has learned to live with them.
Nevertheless, the popularity of Putin looks very good. Last December 2021, two thirds of Russians (65%) approved the way Putin rules. His popularity even increased with respect to the previous month. Since he came into power in 2000 his numbers have been high. In August 2008, during the war with Georgia, Putin enjoyed an 83% approval. In March 2014, after the “historic reunification” with Crimea, the numbers were again high: 80%. The decline of his approval ratings in February and March 2019 (64%) were linked to a pension and retirement age reform.
Now the fundamental question is: will the US and Russia go to war over Ukraine? Despite turmoil in the stock markets, it is not a scenario either country desires. A war would not be a win-lose scenario, but a lose-lose. Putin knows this. Biden too. The strategy of Putin is insisting on the prohibition of Ukraine from joining NATO, but this is done in order to conduct negotiations. Some experts explain that the so-called “military deployments” ordered by Russia are in fact to reposition troops and equipment. No air force deployments have been made at this point, an indication that an invasion may not occur after all. Putin may also want to take advantage of the departure of Angela Merkel, a leader who was a key facilitator and negotiator in Western Europe with Russia. With Merkel out of the picture, the European Union has lost leverage against Putin.
Certainly, Biden may need a little help from a war to achieve consensus in Capitol Hill, and to look more decisive. Yet, he is not like that. He is institutional, a negotiator, a broker. As Obama’s Vice President he privileged negotiations and dialogues with different countries and leaders. It has been said that a war may have a benign distraction effect on the current shortcomings of the Biden administration, but the reality is that those shortcomings may increase, because of the economic effect a war may gave, for instance, on an already stressed economy where inflation is harming the population. Biden needs to be seen less “Senatorial” and more “Presidential” although a war does not seem the right way to achieve this. Instead, he could negotiate terms and conditions with Russia and may emerge, as suggested, more Presidential… or vice versa and turned more Senatorial.
There is always room for negotiations and Putin may get what it wants: to be recognized as a leader, not as someone who can be forced to make concessions with nothing in return. So, in many respects, the two unwanted guests at the Oval Office’s coach, Russia and China, are there to stay and Biden and the US may have to accommodate to this new arrangement. The solution to the Ukraine crisis may be a Finlandization, where Ukraine commits to neutrality, not joining NATO, and accepting the influence of Russia in the region. That goes through NATO and the US of course, but both lack skills and the power to change the geopolitics of the region.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rosas (pictured above) can be reached via email at:[email protected].
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