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Putin could benefit from Biden’s half-hearted stance towards Moscow

Although Biden will want to appear firm on countering Moscow’s actions, doubts have lingered over how much he can live up to his previously tough words on the Russian leader’s assertive foreign policy

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey 

US President Joe Biden has pledged to back up his threats of pressuring Russia’s Vladimir Putin, prior to their summit on June 16. The White House described the meeting between the two leaders as “vital” for protecting American interests, as part of Biden’s week-long tour in Europe, where he also attended the G7 Summit in England, and will meet other European heads of state.

Biden is expected to press Putin on a wider range of issues, including Russian cyberattacks on US infrastructure, human rights in Russia, Moscow’s military build-up in Ukraine and US sanctions on Russia. Supporting the EU’s unity would be a crucial step for Biden to ensure it can effectively pressure Russia.

Although Biden will want to appear firm on countering Moscow’s actions, doubts have lingered over how much he can live up to his previously tough words on the Russian leader’s assertive foreign policy.

On the one hand, Biden has already adopted some firm measures on Moscow. In April, he sanctioned 32 entities and individuals with alleged involvement in the presidential election interference and disinformation campaigns.

Furthermore, on June 7, Biden expressed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he will stand with Ukraine in the face of Russia’s military expansion there and support the country’s territorial integrity. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he also warned that he would stand with Europe against Russian aggression, while aiming to shore up the US’ “democratic alliances” and threatened that he would “not hesitate to respond to harmful activities.”

However, his apparent unwavering support for Ukraine and Europe was contradicted by the recent agreement over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Ukrainian President Zelensky said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” about, adding that Biden had not even consulted him about this. Rather, he learnt about the plans through media reports.

The agreement on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline enables Germany to buy gas from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, after the Biden administration waived sanctions on the initiative and its Putin-allied manager on May 20.

It is also important to note that Donald Trump had opposed the deal, despite being accused of being more sympathetic towards Putin. And given that in April the US Embassy in Berlin stated that the Biden administration was “determined to use all available levers to prevent the Nord Stream 2’s completion,” it shows Biden is willing to make concessions towards Russia for little in return.

We could expect to see future cases of US tolerance of Putin, even if Biden utters harsh criticisms at the summit.

There are also several other issues that Biden may try to raise with Putin, particularly regarding the Middle East, where the US has traditionally been perceived as weak. This could include Syria, where Washington has been criticized for inaction throughout the country’s civil war, from the era of Barack Obama to the current administration.

After Bashar Al-Assad’s election in May, “decried” as a sham that further imposed Assad’s authoritarian rule over the country, Russia has tried to state its support for what it calls Assad’s “legitimacy.”

Although Biden is continuing sanctions on the Syrian regime, particularly through the Trump-era Caesar Act, which would penalize Russia should it act towards engaging in Syria, it has failed to address the role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in violating the act through its support for Assad. This could be a further boost to Russia, towards whom Washington has largely adopted a tepid approach, according to many observers.

The US ambassador to the UN Lisa Thomas-Greenfield recently announced that Washington is upping its efforts to persuade Russia not to close a vital area of humanitarian aid in the Syria-Turkey border, showing how Moscow is now the most decisive actor in the country, a reality to which Washington is being forced to adapt.

Meanwhile, Russia has set its eyes elsewhere in the Middle East as time has moved on. Some of Washington’s allies like Saudi Arabia still have concerns over Iranian influence. The US withdrew some military aid to Saudi Arabia in February as a result of the country’s devastating war in Yemen, where it fought Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. This could drive Riyadh to orient itself more “eastwards” toward Russia.

However, although Joe Biden pledged to end “all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” he has not fully ended military support for Riyadh, and in April announced a U-turn on its pledge not to proceed with a $23-billion weapons package to the UAE, a key player in Yemen’s conflict.

Although Biden’s initial support for an end to the Yemen war was laudable, as are the recent visits of US officials to Gulf states to help ease the conflict, this half-hearted stance could ensure that violence risks continuing, while warring parties like Saudi Arabia could consider drifting towards Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Another key area which Biden has pledged to reform is US engagement in Afghanistan. Although the withdrawal is around 50 percent complete as of June 14, per Biden’s promise to fully withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 2021, Washington’s consideration of sending in drones or warplanes to combat the Taliban shows it still retains a desire to intervene in the country.

The head of US Central Command (CENTCOM) Kenneth McKenzie said in April that the US plans to counter the Taliban from neighboring states and given that he said in an interview on June 11 that Washington still faces threats from extremist groups in Afghanistan and beyond, it further highlights the US’ interventionist position. And as Kabul has suggested [11], it may seek Moscow’s military support amid the US’ drawdown, which could even prompt Washington to rethink a full withdrawal.

Meanwhile, as Russia perceives a lack of decision-making from the US on issues such as Syria and Libya, it will seek to exploit any perceived vacuum left by the US. Even with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict, in which Israel’s 11-day offensive on the Gaza Strip in May created the need for more global leadership to end the violence, Moscow has courted the Hamas party, after senior figures of the Gaza’s ruling faction requested that Russia intervene and help establish a ceasefire.

Despite an Egypt-brokered ceasefire temporarily stemming the violence, Moscow’s moves have positioned Russia as a potential future power broker, due to Washington’s failure to pressure Israel and proactively back an end to the violence.

* The author is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Asia Live.

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