Observations of an ex pat: The Biden/Putin Circus

G7 in Cornwall, NATO heads of government in Brussels and finally a Putin-Biden face-to-face on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It is President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip and designed to show, in his words, that “America is back.”

Not with the unilateralist, like it or lump it foreign policy of the Trump years, but with a return to across the board multilateralist-driven leadership. One of the keys to this new policy will be US-Russian relations. And a big part of the meetings in Cornwall and Brussels is finalising tactics for the summit in Geneva.

The US president has a long list of grievances to present to Vladimir Putin: Belarus, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, election meddling, cyber-attacks, intermediate nuclear weapons, human rights, corruption, sanctuary for ransomware criminals….

He will deliver the list and then move on. Biden did not ask for the summit to list grievances. He asked for it to forge a new and more pragmatic relationship with Moscow as a counter to the real threat—China. During the Cold War years, the US successfully played Beijing off against the Russians. Now it is time to play the reverse side of the diplomatic coin: Russia against China.

But to judge the success of such a strategy you have to first understand the Russian leader’s position. And to do that you have to start from the premise that Russia is a failing state. However, it is also an ambitious failing state with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—6,257 warheads. Putin inherited an economy that was tanking. He stopped the precipitous decline by selling out to oligarchs and has ended up a prisoner of the corrupt system he created.

Russian billionaires swan about the world in their private jets and super yachts while the Russian masses are possibly economically worse off than they were under Soviet rule. To divert the hoi polloi from their problems Putin sets out to discredit the West—especially America—so that his own “illiberal democracy” makes Russians feel good about themselves in comparison. As with most foreign policies, start with the domestic concerns.

But there are other traditional historic concerns. The Russians have been obsessed with invasion from the West since the failed march on Moscow by Napoleon’s Grand Army. Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa and the Great Patriotic War is still an everyday political fact of Russian life. Soviet control of Eastern Europe and the division of Germany is hailed as a Russian diplomatic triumph which many would like to see emulated.

The reason is that Moscow sits on the Eastern edge of the North European plain which stretches all the way to the North Sea and performs the role of two-way invasion route for opposing tank-based armies. Putin’s aim—probably the aim of any Russian leader—is to push the Russian sphere of influence and control as far to the West of Moscow as is possible. That is why he supports the unedifying and brutal dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. It is why he has annexed Crimea and dispatched “volunteers” to fight for a breakaway state in Ukraine. It explains the heavily-armed Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic and warnings about the West providing support to Ukraine.

It also explains why Putin is dragging his feet over re-negotiating a deal limiting intermediate range nuclear weapon—the INF Treaty. These weapons are targeted almost exclusively on NATO forces in Western Europe. Strategic weapons are covered by the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which has successfully reduced the intercontinental ballistic missiles that each country has aimed at the other.

The START Treaty has recently been renewed (February 2021) and will now run until February 2026. The renewal of START and the foot-dragging over INF is a prime example of what nuclear strategists refer to as Russian attempts at de-coupling the United States from the defence of Western Europe. Russia makes concessions on nuclear weapons aimed at the US to make Washington feel good while increasing the pressure on its European backyard, thus raising the question in America of the benefit of protecting Europe.

Biden will come under pressure at the NATO heads of government meeting in Brussels to push for a renewed and—hopefully tougher—INF Treaty. The problem is that saving START at the expense of INF may be one of the few negotiating tactics available to the US president. And at the moment he has few weapons in his negotiating armoury. As long as Putin is meddling in elections, Ukraine and Belarus the US-led West will impose sanctions. They are highly unlikely to be lifted in Geneva or at any time soon. So INF could be kicked into the long grass in order to win concessions over Russian positions on China.

At the moment Beijing and Moscow appear to be marching in lock-step towards an anti-Western future. But history has taught us that this is unlikely to last. Not only do we have the experience of the Sino-Soviet split of the Cold War years, but the Russians have long and vivid memories of the 240-year reign of the Golden Horde which swept out of the East in 1240 and left Moscow and Kiev smouldering wrecks. The invasion routes come from the East as well as the West, which could explain why Putin works hard to maintain influence in the former Soviet states in Central Asia.

Finally, while the White House and State Department regard Russia as a failed state, they also fear that its failure increases the threat from Moscow. Russia is no longer able to compete for hearts and minds in the developing world and it has been forced to dramatically reduce its conventional forces. This means that it will increasingly opt for the greater bang for the rouble offered by cyber warfare and nuclear weapons. A cornered and isolated enemy, it is argued by many, is far more dangerous and unpredictable than the old Soviet Union.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Brad Barrows 12th Jun '21 - 4:39pm

    Unfortunately not as balanced a perspective as we have come to expect. No mention that the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact led to NATO deciding to expand its membership and push its border ever closer to Moscow. No mention that NATO countries supported the overthrow of a democratically elected, pro-Russian, president in Ukraine. No mention that NATO countries supported, and recognised, Kosovo gaining independence from Serbia, against Serbian wishes, and NATO forces defend Kosovo’s independence today, while when Russian forces intervened to allow the people of Crimea to vote to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, Russia is condemned by NATO countries for interfering with Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

  • Paul Barker 12th Jun '21 - 6:49pm

    @Brad Barrows.
    The big difference between The Warsaw Pact & NATO is that the latter is voluntary while the former was The Russian Empire under another name. Countries have to apply to join NATO & they have to meet a series of conditions to be allowed in.
    After the collapse of The Russian Empire/USSR Countries in Central/Eastern Europe were queuing up to join Nato, even now Ukraine would love to join.
    There is a New Cold War & Liberals have to be on the side of Democracy & Self-Determination.

    An excellent article, if its a bit depressing thats just the cards we have been dealt.

  • Thank you again, Mr Arms.

    If you keep doing articles like this, I might suspend my subscription to several magazines.
    @ Mr Barrows. This is not uncommon. Fair-play is one of Democracy’s values, but when I hear the Warsaw Pact described as the equivalent of NATO (“Hey! Everybody’s got faults – nobody’s perfect!”), I’m reminded of the Flanders and Swan song about, “Let’s not be beastly to the Germans”.

    I remember, in my naivety in the aftermath of the Cold War, thinking that perhaps Russia could end up as part of NATO. Now that WAS naive (I was young); almost as naive as thinking NATO and the Warsaw Pact were equal sides of the same coin.

  • Moscow and Beijing have a massive advantage. They don’t believe in catastrophic global warming. Therefore, they see no need to get rid of efficient low cost energy and replace it with intermittent, unreliable, high cost energy that could destroy the stability of their grid. They don’t see the need to replace internal combustion engine transport with short range, ages to refuel vehicles that require a nationwide new infrastructure. They have no concern about the battery problems that include a shortage and environmentally difficult raw materials, lack of recycling, propensity to burn out of control, short recycle life, extreme weight limiting efficiency, long recharge speed and short service life, inversely proportional to recharge speed.
    When they read that our woke MOD is anxious to embrace zero carbon tanks and aircraft they must be laughing uncontrollably.


    Have a look at the above link.It shows the climate models. Our government probably follows the average one in red which runs incredibly hot compared with reality, which is represented by the blue and green points on the graph.

    Now look very closely. You might see a faint line that gets very close to the blue and green observation lines.This is the so-called Russian model. Now you know why the Russians think we are stupid and why they have no intention to follow.

    Sadly, a lot of UK scientists agree with the Russians but the linkage between government policy, academic funding and scientific consensus is completely corrupt.

    If you wish to question global warming orthodoxy, then prepare to lose all funding and be sacked. Universities are enjoying previously unimaginable levels of funding by claiming a climate emergency of some sort (any sort). Those who challenge this are driven out. There is a business model. (1) Claim a looming emergency backed by flimsy research (2) This emergency requires more research which will require more funding (3) Repeat.

  • ERRATUM in previous post:
    AAARGH! Noel Coward! Proof-read, Chris, proof-read!
    My apologies for the incorrect attribution of, “Let’s not be beastly to the Germans”.

    As Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) said in “Some Like It Hot”, “Nobody’s perfect.”
    Sorry to all you fans of vintage music comedy.

  • Brad Barrows 12th Jun '21 - 9:08pm

    @Paul Barker, Chris
    My point about NATO choosing to expand Eastwards once the Warsaw Pact disbanded was not seeking to make any moral equivalence between the two organisations but to point out that NATO took that action despite clear evidence that informal commitments were given that this would not happen. The comment “Fair play is one of democracies values” is therefore particularly ironic.

  • @Brad Barrows.

    Thank you for your response, Mr Barrows. I was unaware of any “informal commitments”, by the West. To be quite frank, it is my belief that the West lost the chance for rapprochement that it had in its grasp, by treating the Soviet Union and Russia as vanquished nations, rather than extending the olive branch of friendship to people who had been oppressed for decades.
    The western money-grabbing so-called ‘entrepeneurs’ that flooded to the ex Soviet Union in the weeks and months after its demise, meant that true democracy had little chance of taking hold.
    Thanks for your comment.

  • John Marriott 13th Jun '21 - 9:54am

    Brad Barrows makes a point regarding the former Warsaw Pact I have made several times on LDV before. Remember Tim Farron’s unfortunate comment about Baltic State missiles now pointing east instead of west?

    Russia’s paranoia is understandable. How would we here in England feel if an independent Scotland suddenly did a deal with a state whose motives we suspected. Heaven forbid. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I do not disapprove of what either Russia or China are up to.

    I also feel, like ‘Chris’, that we should have avoided rubbing Russia’s nose into the mess created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Triumphalism is not a good character trait. However, Chris, don’t forget the home grown ‘entrepreneurs’, who made a killing under Yeltsin and who can be found in the smarter parts of London and sailing their yachts around the Med.

  • John Marriott @”Home grown entrepreneurs who made a killing under Yeltsin etc” might I add, many who also contribute large amounts to Conservative party funds??

  • John Marriott 13th Jun '21 - 11:33am

    Spot on, Barry Lofty! The folks I feel sorry for are the ordinary Russians – shafted by the Romanovs, then by the communists and now by the Mafia! I guess you could apply that description to the citizens of a few countries around the world. Despite everything, we here have much to be thankful for, although I admit that a few people still require some convincing!

  • John Marriott @ Quite so, if we could dispense with all those who use their fellow countrymen and women for their own selfish advancement perhaps our world would be a much happier and safer place to live? Some hopes??

  • neil James sandison 13th Jun '21 - 4:45pm

    A good historical picture of events but no mention of how Europe and Great Britain can assist Biden to persuade Putin and the Russian people they have nothing to fear from us and should be our allies and not their enemies . de-escalating the nuclear arms race would economically aid both east and west . Persuading Putin he should be a protector and not an aggressor to his neighbors would help them build a new economy much as we are doing in the US and wider Europe Biden needs to go forward with a very different agenda to Trump backed up by support from the western nations .

  • Peter Hirst 14th Jun '21 - 2:37pm

    China and Russia have strategic interests and they must sometimes overlap. China seems more emenable to western values despite its lack of democracy. They will play the game of seeming to disengage so as to obtain political advantage of the West.

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