What is the future for US-Russian relations in the Biden era?

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

President Biden’s recent confrontational comments concerning Vladimir Putin’s leadership, and his promise to “make Russia pay” for interfering in the 2020 US presidential elections clearly seems to introduce a new period of tensions between the two former Cold War powers. The US President even called Putin a “killer” in an interview on Wednesday 17th of March on ABC News and promised that a whole panel of sanctions will be shortly announced to punish this affront from the Russian president. 

Putin reacted to the latter statements by mentioning the murder of Native Americans by the original European settlers in America and ironically concluding: “We always attribute to other people… what we essentially are.” He also summoned the Russian ambassador to the US to Moscow for “consultations”, which suggests that diplomatic relations between both countries are at a historic low point (Politi, Foy, Manson, 2021). 

However, although this aggressive approach adopted by the Biden administration is definitely at odds with Donald Trump’s generally conciliatory rhetoric vis-a-vis Russia, this new stance seems to logically follow from a series of disagreements and incidents between the two nations. The conflicting interests of Moscow and Washington in the Middle East appear to crystallise most of these tensions. But, this strategy might potentially be costly for the US, because US-Russian economic links have grown in recent years, and cooperation with Russia is crucial for US and global security. 

Conflicting geopolitical interests 

The Middle East is a key region for the US, which has always sought to prevent any hostile anti-American forces from becoming too prominent in this geopolitical arena since the end of World War II. Although the reasons behind this importance of the Middle East are varied and have evolved since 1945, the vast oil reserves located in this area have unquestionably been the main one. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, those resources were essential to the US because of their Western European allies’ overreliance on Middle East oil. Currently, the latter is crucial to Washington mostly for a different reason. The US being the largest oil-producing country in the world and the fifth largest exporter, the health of the American economy is substantially dependent on the global prices of oil (Fawthrop, 2019; Workman, 2020). These prices can be very easily disrupted by any sudden change of oil price or production in one region. Because of the massive amount of oil extracted in the Middle East, any significant incident occurring in this region can have a substantial impact on global oil prices and thus potentially harm US economic prosperity (Brands, 2019). Ensuring that the Middle East remains stable is therefore one of the most crucial objectives of American foreign policy. 

Historically, Washington has generally sought to achieve this objective by supporting militarily and economically, its allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and intervening whenever the security of these collaborative actors is threatened or when the overall security of the region is at risk. For example, the justification behind the US intervention in Iraq was the accusation that Saddam Hussein’s regime was secretly pursuing a weapons of mass destruction programme, and thus constituted a threat for America and its allies. Currently, Moscow seems to have returned to its Cold War habit of consistently supporting US enemies in the Middle East, seeming like Putin is trying to counterbalance American influence in this region (Talbott, Tennis, 2020). This behaviour is thus clearly detrimental to US interests since it increases the tensions in the region and emboldens anti-American forces. 

The Russian aura in the Middle East has significantly grown since Putin decided to grant his full support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian war, whereas the US-led NATO intervention expressly demanded his departure and backed the rebel forces. The current overall victory of Russia and Assad and the gradual retreat of American forces from the conflict represents a serious blow to US international reputation as a reliable foreign backer in the region. Furthermore, over the span of the war, Moscow has managed to shift Turkey’s allegiances, even though Ankara is part of NATO and actually fights on the opposite side. In fact, the void created by the removal of American forces from Syria forced cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, who also collaborated in order to establish a “Syria Safe Zone” (Talbott, Tennis, 2020). 

Even concerning the highly tense case of Iran, Russia has been a vocal opponent of US interests. In fact, Putin has harshly criticized the strategy of “maximum pressure” employed by Donald Trump in order to constrain Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program. This implicit support from the Russian leader has significantly undermined the US plan to isolate Iran, and undoubtedly strongly influenced Iran’s decision to stop respecting the restrictions that are part of the deal on its nuclear activities. Iran pursuing its advances to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon definitely represents a threat to the stability of the Middle east, and therefore clearly conflicts with US interests. 

It is thus conspicuous that Russian interests clearly conflict with those of the US in the Middle East, which is a key region in the eyes of Washington. The current spike of tensions between the US and Russia therefore seems to be the only logical outcome of their antagonistic positions and alliances on the international scene. 

Cooperation with Russia remains important

Although Biden’s new confrontational approach seems to be entrenched within clear geopolitical rivalries, it might risk to undermine the current links existing between the US and Russia, which have significantly increased since the end of the Cold War. 

Probably the most striking aspect of this new relation developed between Moscow and Washington since the 1990s is the rise of economic interactions between the two countries. In fact, while during the Cold War the economic exchanges between the two nations were almost nonexistent, Russia is now a relatively important trade partner for the US. In 2019, US trade of goods and services with Russia was actually estimated at $34.9 billion, making Moscow the 26thlargest US goods trading partner (Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2021). It is also estimated that around 66,000 jobs are supported by US trade with Russia (US Department of Commerce, 2016). The announced implementation of sanctions by the US on Russia thus risks to seriously jeopardize those strong economic links, even though their importance is not absolutely essential to US economic prosperity. Biden’s approach might thus detrimentally affect some areas of the American economy, which is not negligible. 

In addition to negatively impacting the US economy, this nascent conflict might significantly threaten US and global security. In fact, Russia and the US remain by far the two largest nuclear powers in the world, even if their nuclear arsenal has substantially decreased in the past twenty years. This reduction is mainly the outcome of the co-signature of nuclear arms control treaties by the two countries. This decrease of the global nuclear arsenal has been one of most positive advances achieved in the post-Cold War world. Last February, Biden and Putin extended the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which is the name given to the last nuclear arms reduction treaty binding Moscow and Washington, for five additional years (Williams, 2021). However, Biden’s current aggressive approach towards Putin’s Russia risks to have a long-term impact on the nature of the US-Russia relationship, and thus potentially deter Putin, who will most probably still be in command in 2026, from pursuing his commitment to denuclearisation. In this scenario, no verifiable limits would be imposed on the intercontinental-range of Russian nuclear weapons, which would undoubtedly increase paranoia on the US side and potentially result in a new arms race. 

Therefore, the Biden administration’s conflictual attitude seems to be logical, given the fact that Russia’s foreign policy decisions consistently antagonise US interests, especially in the Middle East. But, Biden’s reaction might be excessively aggressive and lead to economic hardships in his country, and more importantly jeopardize US and global security in the foreseeable future.

Bibliography: 

BBC News (2021) “Russia’s Putin authorised pro-Trump “influence” campaign, US intelligence says” (Online). Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56423536 (Accessed: 19 March 2021). 

-Brands, H. (2019). “Why America Can’t Quit the Middle East”, Hoover Institution (Online). Available at: https://www.hoover.org/research/why-america-cant-quit-middle-east (Accessed: 20 March 2021). 

-Bureau of Industry and Security (2016). “2015 Statistical Analysis of U.S. Trade with Russia”, U.S. Department of Commerce (Online). Available at: https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/documents/technology-evaluation/ote-data-portal/cou ntry-analysis/1518-2015-statistical-analysis-of-u-s-trade-with-russia-pdf (Accessed: 20 March 2021). 

-Fawthrop, A. (2020). “The Top ten largest oil-producing countries in the world”, NS Energy (Online). Available at: https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/features/top-oil-producing-countries/#:~:text=Saudi%2 0Arabia%20%E2%80%93%2011.8%20million%20barrels%20per%20day&text=The%20countr y%20is%20the%20world’s,leader%20of%20the%20Opec%20group (Accessed: 20 March 2021). 

-Foy H., Politi J., and Manson, K. (2021). “Russia recalls ambassador to US amid deteriorating relations”, Financial Times (Online). Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/ec5d259d-0509-4ef5-9763-dd474fe1d7e0 (Accessed: 19 March 2021). 

Office of the United States Trade Representative (2021). “Russia” (Online). Available at: https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/europe-middle-east/russia-and-eurasia/russia (Accessed: 20 March 2021). 

-Talbott, S. and Tennis, M. (2020). “The only winner of the US-Iran showdown is Russia”, Brookings (Online). Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/01/09/the-only-winner-of-the-us-i ran-showdown-is-russia/ (Accessed: 20 March 2021).

-Williams, A. (2021). “U.S. extends New START nuclear treaty with Russia for 5 years”, NBC News (Online). Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/u-s-extends-new-start-nuclear-treaty-russia-5-ye ars-n1256625 (Accessed: 20 March 2021). 

-Workman, D. (2020). “Crude Oil Exports by Country”, World’s Top Exports (Online). Available at: http://www.worldstopexports.com/worlds-top-oil-exports-country/ (Accessed: 20 March 2021).

By Yann Guillaume

Yann Guillaume is first-year Bsc Politics and International Relations at UCL. He is passionate about current affairs, diplomacy and international politics, and is particularly interested in the American leadership in the post-Trump era.

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