Skand Tayal | US-Russia ties, already rocky, get worse after Navalny jailing
The fraught relationship between the United States and Russia has come under further strain after the alleged poisoning and recent sentencing of prominent Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On February 4, US President Joe Biden, in his first articulation of foreign policy after assuming office, had some harsh words for President Vladimir Putin. Mr Biden “made it clear that the days of the US rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions -- interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens -- are over”. Castigating Russia for “the politically motivated jailing of Alexei Navalny”, President Biden cautioned Moscow that the US “will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia”, alluding to possible additional sanctions.
Ignoring diplomatic niceties, President Biden said: “The politically motivated jailing of Alexei Navalny and the Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are a matter of deep concern. He should be released immediately and without conditions.”
On February 2, after Mr Navalny was sentenced to more than two years in prison on rather flimsy charges, new US secretary of state Anthony Blinken tweeted: “We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising the rights.”
Such public criticism is likely to deeply offend Mr Putin, the strong leader of a proud country. Russia would be loath to taking any action under outside pressure and the chances of the Russian State showing any leniency towards a high-profile dissident may have simply vanished.
Besides the persecution of Mr Navalny, the Biden administration takes office with a deep-rooted suspicion towards Mr Putin’s Russia. The Democratic Party holds Russia’s involvement in the leaking of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails responsible for her defeat in 2016 by Donald Trump. In a signed Foreign Affairs article in March 2020, Joe Biden had declared solidarity with “Russian civil society, that has stood up against President Vladimir Putin’s kleptrocratic authoritarian system”. Laying down his future policy, candidate Biden wrote that “to counter Russian aggression, we must keep (Nato’s) military capabilities sharp”, and threatened to “impose real costs on Russia for its violation of international norms”.
Incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan added to the chorus by declaring that “unlike the previous administration, we will be taking steps to hold Russia accountable for the range of malign actions Russia has taken”.
America’s penchant for conducting critical bilateral relations in the full glare of media publicity may win the Biden establishment accolades from internal constituencies but are unlikely to lead to effective outcomes.
The United States is no longer the world’s undisputed economic and military power, with China snapping at its heels. Its grip on alliances like Nato has also weakened. In the backdrop of the Covid-linked economic downturn, much of the democratic world puts national interests first. In this dynamic and uncertain international environment, it is doubtful that other key powers will stand by the US if it tries to impose more punitive sanctions on Russia. The US, however, certainly has the capacity to impose unilateral sanctions isolating Russia from the global financial and banking network, that would adversely hit the Russian economy.
In his February 4 address at the state department, Mr Biden assured a wary world that the US will act “not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s” and to “take on directly the challenges posed… by our most serious competitor China”. Mr Biden declared that “we will confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive actions; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance.”
At his confirmation hearing, Mr Blinken had also clearly identified China as “posing the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world for the United States”.
The Biden administration would be well advised to take a hard look at America’s declining influence in the world and prioritise adversaries and challenges. Russia now has a shrinking footprint on the global strategic map. It’s no longer an expansionist power. In 2008, Russia was severely provoked by Nato’s offer of membership to Ukraine and Georgia. Mr Putin had clearly warned at that time that Nato’s expansion towards Russia “would be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country”. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and action in Donbas, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were a riposte to the aggressive intentions of Nato.
President Putin had a career in the KGB in the days of the Soviet empire. He has firm control over all the levers of power in Russia and is popular among citizens. With Mr Putin at the helm, Russia is not an ideology-driven country, like the erstwhile Soviet Union. Russia is now obsessed with internal stability and external security. Outside support to vocal Opposition leaders is seen by the Kremlin as a West-inspired attempt to destabilise the country.
Russia poses no future challenge to the United States or the West, be it economic or technological. The West lacks any levers to soften the harsh internal system in Russia. Public criticism of a proud nation will only harden positions and genuine concerns are best conveyed behind closed doors.
For America’s own future primacy, the real challenge is from China and its demonising of Russia will only push the Kremlin into the Dragon’s embrace, immeasurably adding to China’s clout and aggression. The Biden administration needs a pragmatic foreign policy, overcome its prejudices and arrest the slide of US-Russia ties on this slippery slope.