In the six months since President Joseph Biden assumed office, the White House has sought to re-assert a set of coherent policies for approaching key U.S. interests in Eurasia: supporting nascent democracies and democratic movements; containing Russia’s nuclear and cyber threat; mitigating the risk of the Afghanistan withdrawal and its potential to destabilize Central Asia; and promoting energy security for U.S. allies.
None of these were priorities for the previous administration, and many were swept off the table entirely as the Trump administration pursued a brand of isolationism that Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, labelled “counterproductive.” As a result, the Biden administration faces far graver challenges both domestically and internationally that even the most dedicated Eurasia-watcher must acknowledge the Biden administration has rightfully prioritized in its first six months. Nevertheless, the administration’s disjointed policy on Eurasia needs addressing, particularly in light of the rapid destabilization of Afghanistan.
Biden the Eurasianist?
Biden is not new to Eurasian affairs, and his foreign policy experience—honed as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—reportedly factored in Barack Obama tapping him as his running mate in 2008. A trip that Biden took to the Republic of Georgia shortly after its war with Russia that August was seen as a key vice presidential audition. He would play a lead role in shaping U.S. policy to Ukraine after its 2014 Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s resulting invasion. The Biden administration includes trusted staffers with decades of experience in the region, including those at the highest levels such as Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, and Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns.
The Biden administration’s early moves signaled a deep appreciation of a key factor in Russia-U.S. relations: kleptocracy. This was welcomed by many Eurasia watchers and foreign policy analysts, particularly after it had received fairly little attention under the Obama administration, at least until the annexation of Crimea. The apparent shift in focus was overdue, particularly after the destabilizing impacts of kleptocracy and their ability to counter U.S. interests were arguably aggravated by the Trump administration. Biden singled out illicit money’s nefarious role in a Foreign Affairs article published as he was sowing-up the Democratic nomination in spring 2020, and his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, indicated anti-kleptocracy efforts would be at the forefront of the administration’s agenda in a November 2020 Politico profile.
Looking merely at the headlines of Biden’s time in office so far, one may well be left with the impression that he is reasserting America’s aforementioned priorities. Shortly after taking office, he agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the New START arms control treaty. He later held a fairly non-controversial summit with Putin in Geneva at which further arms control talks and a de-escalation of cyber tensions were explored. Biden even reportedly secured an invitation from Russia to use its bases in Central Asia for post-withdrawal operations in Afghanistan, according to Kommersant.
The Kremlin’s seriousness on this offer must now be a priority for the Biden administration, particularly after Biden declared in his August 16 address on Afghanistan that he would prioritize continued counter-terrorism capabilities in Afghanistan. This need is further aggravated by the fact that—a decade after Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan—the Biden administration can no longer keep up the pretense that Islamabad is a reliable partner given its support for the Taliban and hosting of international terrorists. However, the Kommersant report should be viewed with heavy skepticism and may well be an attempt by the Kremlin to demand concessions from the Biden administration or to lay blame for any post-withdrawal spillover of instability at its feet. Lamentably, negotiating any such agreement after the United States has already effectively withdrawn from Afghanistan has only weakened the Biden administration’s hand further.
Upon peeling back the layers and looking at the White House’s policy in more detail, it is clear that Eurasian affairs not only remain on the backburner but that the administration’s policy is still disjointed and muddled.
For example, Biden’s hosting of Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the White House in late July was something of a surprise, having not been announced in advance. While Biden has denounced Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s recent crackdowns, the move has renewed the Kremlin’s concerns that the return of a Democratic administration to the White House will result in renewed support for democracy promotion in Eurasia, which Moscow sees as hostile to its interest. Biden appears to have been following European leaders’ lead, after a number of them hosted Tsikhanouskaya in the previous months. While standing up for her in the face of Belarus’ repression is to be lauded, Washington cannot afford to lead from behind on Russian-European relations.
Nonetheless, that is precisely what has occurred, with Brussels surprisingly even taking the lead after the Lukashenko regime’s brazen intra-European Union plane-jacking and subsequent detention of an opposition journalist by introducing its own sanctions limiting financing for Minsk leaving Washington to play catch up. Given Biden’s foreshadowing that he saw kleptocracy and money politics as key to U.S. interest, this is particularly disappointing.
This is further exemplified by the fact that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has not given any indication that anti-kleptocracy efforts will be a focus of her department. In the region itself, the administration has not expended any significant political capital to assist in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s belated anti-oligarch efforts. The administration has signaled that it will slow sanctions expansion on Russian kleptocrats and has even remained silent on arguably the most symbolic case of kleptocratic malign influence: the years-long extradition case of Dmytro Firtash even though Firtash is suspected of seeking to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Furthermore, Washington has remained almost largely absent from the tumult that has rocked Kyrgyzstan for the past year—whether it be Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s release of criminals who have sat at the heart of its kleptocracy in exchange for token settlements or the slow-motion expropriation of one of the world’s largest gold mines. Additionally, the administration had no discernible response beyond expressions of concern to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s deadliest border clashes in years. That sentiment is more than can be said for its position on the public health fiasco in Turkmenistan caused by the kleptocratic regime’s refusal to acknowledge the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Nor has its planned anti-corruption agenda raised any particular concerns for Kazakhstan, even after reporting by the Financial Times last year raised the specter that associated violence has spread into the United States.
The Biden administration has even stood by as Georgia—arguably Washington’s closest partner and strongest democracy in the former Soviet space outside of the Baltics—has faced its own slow-burning political crisis. It allowed the European Union to mediate a reconciliation agreement between Georgia’s leading political forces in April, a far cry from Assistant Secretary of State Nuland’s surreptitiously recorded position on the EU’s role in responding to Ukraine’s 2013-14 political crisis. The pact collapsed in July after the ruling Georgian Dream Party withdrew, and the European Union has been unable to agree to any serious consequences for Tbilisi. The Biden administration did bemoan the collapse as well, but it, too, has not yet presented any plans for a further response.
A Need to Step Up
There are two important areas where the inaction is even more notable: the response to the simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the tacit approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The administration has had a hands-off approach to the fallout from the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war that saw Baku reassert control over much of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory that Yerevan had occupied for over 25 years. Tensions along the new frontlines remain extremely high, with incidents flaring far more intensely and more regularly. Yerevan’s nascent democracy, only genuinely reborn following its 2018 Velvet Revolution, remains without any real alternative strategic ally other than Moscow, even after the war showed the limits of Russia’s security guarantees. While the Biden administration was never likely to allow kleptocracy efforts to seriously readjust its relations with Azerbaijan—whose relationship with Washington has long been largely shaped by Iran and its energy ties with Europe and Israel—it appears to have tacitly accepted Ankara taking a larger role in Baku’s political and security agenda. Leaving the geopolitics of the Karabakh conflict to the backburner of the daily politics of Washington is, at best, lazy and, at worst, outright misguided.
Tukey’s rise as a Eurasian power cannot be ignored. Its development of drone technology, its intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh (in addition to Syria and Libya), tensions over its Russian arms purchases, U.S. sanctions on a NATO ally, and the large-scale erosion of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s democratic bonafides arguably make it the most strategic relationship for the Biden administration to manage over the coming years. This is compounded by a tense domestic economy suffering from sustained high inflation. Former Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has been named ambassador to Turkey, in the U.S. tradition of using high-profile ambassadorships to thank key political supporters and donors. The U.S.-Turkey relationship is too significant at this time for such an appointment. A Eurasia strategy for the administration must address Turkey’s new reality, but this appears lacking.
The administration’s deal with Berlin to allow the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is equally shortsighted. Its argument that threatening sanctions on EU allies fails to take into account how the U.S.-Turkey relationship is characterized by U.S. sanctions on Ankara. Furthermore, although the pipeline was nearly completed under the Trump administration and only slowed by congressional action, the Biden administration’s argument that its completion was a fait accompli and the concessions from Germany—including investments into Ukraine’s green energy sector—are therefore to be celebrated are not serious. Berlin simply cannot be trusted to follow through on these promises given its very powerful Russia lobby and the number of Russlandversteher (Russia sympathizers) near the top of every major political party. The disappointment is aggravated by the agreement’s timing, on the verge of the September 2021 German general election in which the Green Party—within which opposition to the pipeline is far more widespread than in the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD)—has a real chance of entering government.
While the U.S. support for post-Maidan Ukraine has often been cited as the main reason to oppose the pipeline in recent years, the bifurcation that it risks causing in European gas markets outside Ukraine alone is enough reason to do so. One can argue that Brussels should have rightfully recognized this issue and that it is not the U.S. concern to fix its mistakes. Nevertheless, Washington must recognize the strategic weaknesses at the heart of the European Union if it is to be genuinely supportive of its development as a political institution and ally.
The pipeline will further Russia’s energy grip on Germany. Washington has been willing to ignore critical and egregious violations of U.S. sanctions by German giant Siemens, and Russia’s influence in Berlin, Vienna, and much of Central Europe continues. Despite claims that the U.S. sanctioning German and European firms would risk a rupture in the U.S.-German relationship, the issue is not a particularly politically salient one in Germany. Given Russia’s historical willingness to employ energy as a geopolitical tool and to interfere in foreign elections, sanctioning the pipeline at this stage regardless of the fallout may be something to which Germans later would prove grateful to the Biden administration. Instead, Europe and the United States are left to rely on the fleeting, and probably misguided, hope that Gazprom’s recent setbacks in arbitration courts will see its use as a tool of coercion blunted.
Is America “Back”?
Other areas of concern remain, specifically Russia’s cyberactivity, both that suspected of being directed by the state and its willingness to turn a blind eye to the criminal activity of the hacking groups it occasionally coopts. The hope that that the Geneva Summit would result in a new understanding over cyberactivity and cyberattacks appears to have been grossly misplaced. Russian-linked hacks on key U.S. agencies and businesses have continued apace. Nonetheless, Biden has at least set out red lines on what would justify an escalation in response.
Now, it must be mentioned that Biden’s team is still being formed, and sound policy implementation takes some time to occur. Appointments such as that of the German Marshall Fund’s Karen Donfried as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and Donald Lu as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs are promising. However, for now, the administration’s approach to the region appears to be largely an afterthought. It is a common fallacy of regional analysts to expect their area of concern be treated as the foremost priority. Even with the acknowledgment that Eurasia is rightfully a fair bit lower on the administration’s foreign policy agenda than China and the pivot away from the Middle East, one is left to bemoan that the United States remains without a strategic approach to the Eurasian “heartland.”
For example, a soft-touch approach to Kyrgyzstan’s tumult, the Karabakh conflict, and Georgia—all in Russia’s so-called “near abroad”—could be better understood if they were part of an attempt to lower tensions with Russia. One could still disagree with such moves for that reason alone—as this author would—but a comprehensive argument could be made to justify them. However, the current approach is too disjointed.
Six months on, the Biden administration may talk a good game, but the reality of its Eurasia policy leaves much to be desired. Biden is expected to respond to Russia over cyber relations following the apparent failure of the Geneva Summit to achieve meaningful results. Nord Stream 2 is likely settled, but working with Europe on shoring up its defense against Russian energy politics is a must. It also could be a doorway to restoring a more effective, or at least a less adversarial, relationship with Turkey. Conflict mitigation efforts are more important than ever in the South Caucasus and in a Central Asia once again likely to border a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. The Biden administration should also rapidly implement the anti-kleptocracy agenda that not long ago it indicated would be a key priority.
By not following through on previous promises and failing to respond to important regional developments, the administration faces a situation in which it contradicts Biden’s pledge to U.S. allies that “America is back.”