US-Russia relations are at rock bottom. Name-calling over recent weeks, combined with events around eastern Ukraine, required a sudden gesture by US President Joe Biden to call his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss a potential summit and a host of other bilateral security issues.
The Biden administration, not yet in office for 100 days, got caught by the bear trap in Ukraine after failing to react fast enough. Russia is taking advantage of that “gap,” which is allowing Moscow to advance its interests quickly and effectively without immediate pushback by America or its allies. It is part of an ongoing geopolitical tectonic shift.
US sanctions against Russia for last year’s SolarWinds hack and other actions targeting dozens of people and entities is a first American response following Biden’s offer of a meeting. The diplomatic expulsion of Russians is likely to be met with a tit-for-tat response. There is also a question of whether the Biden administration blinked or not because of the Russian buildup in and around Ukraine, with the phone call and sanctions coming late. Russia interprets Biden’s call as a sign of weakness and perhaps Moscow sees its ability to act with impunity at this moment.
To be sure, there is minor back-channeling that occurs between the two sides. The US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff uses a deconfliction line with his Russian counterpart. But that line has not been used publicly for a month or more. Counterterrorism cooperation exists and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev has hinted that these communications are important. However, at the same time, he slapped Washington for “putting biological labs around Russia.”
Russia’s attitude will be on display next week, when Putin gives a major speech at Moscow’s Manezh Square. He is expected to speak of Russia’s immediate future, events around the world, and where Moscow fits into this emerging landscape.
The proposed leaders’ summit comes at a time when Russia’s Ministry of Defense has moved the bulk of its Central Military District equipment to Ukraine’s border. The equipment being sent is top of the line for Russia’s armed forces. Their potential use against Ukrainian forces to seize territory, and the Ukrainian/NATO/US response, is heating up several key locations on the border and in the Donbass region itself, where hostilities are occurring. Belarusian forces need to be included in any actions against Ukraine.
Such a combined force would be sizable and formidable. But the Ukrainian/NATO/US counter is also advanced and kinetic action is highly undesirable. The outcome of any confrontation may show certain superiorities in terms of technologies and their application, especially drones and electronic warfare.
Putin is making this move as part of the wider nature of Russian society today. For the president, 2021 is a key year, as the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union falls in December. Some Russians, including Putin and his coterie, see that event as the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical collapse. This has always been an issue with Putin and it is a theme in many of his comments, especially over the past 15 years. Revenge has been on his mind for years, as demonstrated in his 2007 Munich speech. Moreover, the upcoming 80th anniversary of the start of the Great Patriotic War and Russia’s historical re-examination of that conflict is also driving the country’s policy toward Ukraine.
A US-Russia summit could be held this summer or even sooner. Some say it could be in just a few weeks, although diplomatic agendas must be set for a cooling-off period to restructure or restart talks. It is notable that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov angrily called American commentary and actions “boring.” More importantly, there is no US National Security Council officer for Russia policy. Russia is taking advantage of this gap, and others, to gain advantage in theaters on every continent around the world, with other major moves in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Russia’s Arctic reach was also demonstrated last month by the appearance of three nuclear submarines breaking through the polar ice. The optics are to show dominance.
Thus, while the US dillydallies, Russia is upping its game via vaccine diplomacy, parliamentary outreach programs, and providing services that a new US administration cannot yet offer. With a US-Russia summit, that gap and previous open areas of disagreement can be restructured to reflect new realities. But the US is still at a disadvantage. If some of the coronavirus pandemic debt tables — as documented in last month’s US National Intelligence Council 2040 report — turn out to be true, then there will be more geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges. The tectonic shift of politics and security to the east is fueled by this debt, which can benefit both Russia and, naturally, China.
Finally, the “third location” aspect of the proposed US-Russia summit is always important. Diplomacy demands such an action in this heated environment. If Finland is chosen, Helsinki is in a unique position. It is deeply involved in African affairs and, as such, may help defang the two sides in the current situation. Concern over the Baltics is part of the strategic picture too.
The fact Putin is now able to stay in power until 2036 helps make this US-Russia summit all the more serious and important to get right, with Moscow shifting gears and accelerating its interests globally. The current US-Russia environment is dominated by questions of war and peace.