(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, June 23 (Reuters) – When U.S. President Joe Biden visited Europe last week, only one world leader received his undivided attention for an entire day: Vladimir Putin.
At his press conference in Geneva, Biden claimed that the last thing his Russian counterpart wanted was another Cold War. The truth, however, is that in some respects what the West sees as Russia’s misbehaviour in recent years has achieved exactly what Moscow wanted: to be treated as a “great power”, equal on its own terms with the United States and China.
Biden used that language specifically in his pre-meeting comments – an unambiguous win for the Kremlin, even if the rest of U.S. and Western messaging and activity has been aimed at imposing financial and other costs on Moscow.
The costs of these steps are real – restricting Putin allies and associated firms from Western markets, limiting their access to banking, and stepping up NATO’s presence in Russia’s backyard, something Moscow hates. The truth, though, is that despite all these things, Russia – or at least Putin – has so far had a reasonable year.
Most importantly, from his perspective, the Kremlin has inflicted savage damage on Russia’s now reeling opposition, taking leader Alexei Navalny out of commission first through likely poisoning then by imprisonment and eviscerating his supporting organisations. Secondly, all this has been done without wrecking the one project Moscow really wants completed, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.
Earlier this month, Russia announced the pipeline itself was largely complete, and would shortly be filled as state gas firm Gazprom begins testing it to meet the demands of European regulators.
The pipeline’s completion is not quite the end of the story – changes to European regulations may mean Gazprom has to jump through further hoops, and potentially allow rival Western suppliers to use the same pipeline.
Still, getting this far represents a major win for Moscow. As recently as April, Washington still had hopes of blocking the project before relaxing sanctions against it under pressure from Germany.
THREATENING NUCLEAR FORCE
Unsurprisingly, both sides have sought to claim the outcome of last week as a victory.
Russian media portrayed the summit as a “major diplomatic victory” and potential “reset” in relations with the West. On Russia’s most-watched weekend TV show on state-owned channel Rossiya 1 on Sunday, host Dmitry Kisleyov directly attributed the meeting to U.S. realisation that Russia could turn it “into radioactive ash”.
Kisleyov linked the summit’s outcome to “success for Russian weapons”, an apparent reference to a number of advanced systems Moscow has promoted in recent years. They include the “Poseidon” 2M39 autonomous “nuclear torpedo”, designed to transit hundreds or thousands of miles and trigger radioactive tsunamis against an enemy coastline, most likely the U.S. eastern seaboard.
For the United States, the greatest wins were a relative display of Western unity, certainly compared to the days of the Trump administration. Biden was able to present himself as the linchpin of the Western alliance in a way his predecessor never even attempted, outlining Washington’s red lines to Putin on the issues that matter most to the United States.
That included a blunt warning to Moscow to rein in hackers blamed by U.S. authorities for a string of cyber attacks, most seriously and recently a ransomware attack that crippled U.S. pipeline provider Colonial Pipeline and threatened serious fuel shortages throughout the eastern United States.
Washington is keenly aware that Russia’s nuclear arsenal and ambitions are central to its perception of itself as a global power, but it is Moscow’s more unconventional activity that worries U.S. officials most.
In his post-summit press conference, Putin angrily rejected Biden’s suggestion that Russia should do more to prevent cyber attacks from its territory, claiming that most such attacks came from within the United States. Putin said Russia itself was also the victim of such attacks, including some that compromised essential services.
Another area Washington would dearly like Russia to pull back on would be on Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting since 2014. Here, the signals are distinctly mixed – but again have offered Moscow another opportunity to claim a Russian victory.
Ukraine came out of last week’s summits – particularly Monday’s NATO meeting – with a slightly clearer road map to NATO membership under its Membership Accession Plan, but with Washington signalling this was unlikely to be a fast process.
In particular, Biden said Ukraine needed to get corruption under control – a perennial Western criticism of the country that is also frequently amplified by Moscow. That, together with the absence of any timescale for NATO membership, has been used by Russian media claim Washington is “betraying” and abandoning Ukraine, to the concern of those in that country.
Putin has enough trouble at home to be going on with – not least a resurgent COVID-19 spike. But if the lesson Moscow takes from last week is that if brinkmanship and aggression get it perceived as a U.S.-acknowledged “great power” – and allow him to sell that message domestically – he might only get more dangerous. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)