A precarious time in US-Russian relations

Apr 21, 2021

Things could soon improve,  or they could get very much worse.  There are conflicting policy indications from both sides.

Certainly, the war party in Washington ( as seen in figures like Anthony Blinken,  Victoria Nuland,  Samantha Power, even the still influential Hillary Clinton) seem to be very cocky  at the moment.  Pro-detente cooler heads have been completely silenced in State Dept. But is this real?  There are signs of more caution where it counts, in National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and in the US Armed Forces general staff.

The Kremlin would be asking now,  does the US  war party really have President Biden’s ear? And how much personal agency does President Biden have at this point?

The record of the slow hesitant ending of Cold War I in the mid-eighties, shows that every step Reagan took towards détente with Gorbachev was contested by intense rearguard actions by the US military-industrial-intelligence-MSM complex,  desperate to slow any relaxation in East-West tensions. In the end, thankfully, Reagan went with his instinct.  Will Biden do the same? Has he the strength and staying power?

Moscow is taking no chances this time.  It is not assuming US goodwill, now or in the future. The strong belief in Moscow is that the US-led NATO aggressive system will set regime change wheels in motion in Russia itself if they are ever again given the chance.  The attempted coup in Belarus last summer, which came close to success, was an awful warning. The Navalny machinations continue.

The level of distrust in official Moscow of the West is higher than I can ever remember and it extends across all parties in the Duma. Russia is deeply suspicious of American claimed good intentions. This will not dissipate any time soon.

For Western MSM, the big news last week was the announced new round of US sanctions, New U.S. Sanctions on Russia Send Putin the Right Message – Bloomberg and Russia’s quickly announced matching counter-sanctions.

But looking closely at the accompanying cautious verbal signals, both sets of sanctions are less than they seem. Certainly, they will throttle back the almost defunct bilateral US-Russian official diplomatic relationship to near-comatose levels. Neither embassy will be left with enough staffing to do much of anything, let alone serious spying or regime-change machinations.  The relationship is very cold indeed: The Russian Ambassador to the US remains in Moscow on consultations (he has been there for weeks), and Moscow has now suggested to Washington it would be a good idea for them to recall him for consultations in the US also – a remarkable diplomatic message. Kremlin spokesman Peskov and MFA spokesperson Zakharova have said bluntly that Russia outright rejects Washington trying to speak to Russia   ‘from a position of strength’.

Russia is confident its economy will not be hurt by these latest US/NATO sanctions: there is a big world out there beyond Europe that is taking little notice of them, especially the new strong partner China.

More important by far to Russia is the seven-year-old  Ukraine civil war in the East , which is hotting up again dangerously, but in which Western media take little interest,  it being such an old story.     Narratives on this differ sharply.

Kiev claims Russia is now poised behind its adjacent borders ready to invade Ukraine with massive military force from North, East and South (Crimea). This seems  true.  Russia is not trying to conceal its military readiness.

Meanwhile, on the increasingly tense Donetsk and Lugansk military front in the civil war,  UkroNazi forces (the notorious ‘Right Sector’ movement) seem out of President Zelensky’s effective control. At least one hopes so. They continue to wage a  criminal long-range artillery mortar war, with random lethal bombardments into the very suburbs of Donetsk, every day killing helpless old people, women and children in their homes.   Rage in Russia is growing at these crimes against fellow ethnic Russian civilians in the beloved Donbass, and this could in the end force Putin’s hand to intervene with force.   There is absolutely no MSM reporting of these crimes in Western media: we rely on a few intrepid English-speaking correspondents like Dean O’Brien  ( Twitter @DeanoBeano1)  to know what is happening on the ground.

The consensus of serious observers,  e.g. The Saker,  is that if Russia chose to invade Ukraine now, they would encounter little military resistance and could quickly occupy as much Ukrainian territory as they chose.  They would be tempted if war began to seize the whole north-east region including the heavily ethnically Russian regional capital Kharkov, and the whole coast and hinterland strip from Mariupol to beyond Crimea and as far west as Odessa and the Transnistria Russian mini-state enclave in adjacent Moldova, leaving Kievan Ukraine with a much smaller landlocked state with no Black Sea coast. Such new boundaries would correspond with the majority Russian-speaking (and silently pro-Russian) parts of Ukraine. Such an invasion would involve massive refugee movements in both directions as people abandoned homes and retreated into their respective language zones. There would be immense suffering and destruction on both sides.

Putin does not want this. The US/NATO weaponisation of Ukraine against Russia since 2014 has served nobody’s strategic interests and has only brought instability.  Putin’s policy goal remains what it has always been: the restoration through peaceful means ( Minsk Accords etc) of a stable pluralist political order in Kiev that would support a genuine multi-lingual and multi-cultural Ukraine, including Donetsk and Lugansk, and a genuinely neutral Ukrainian foreign policy that no longer tried to align Ukraine with NATO against Russia. In the longer run Putin would like to see Ukraine reconcile with Russia and resume its important former role in the Russian world abroad. These are reasonable goals:  compare US friendly relations with adjoining smaller states Canada and Mexico.  But they are unattainable in the short run.

Neither NATO nor US would intervene if a wider war came in Ukraine,  because their militaries realise they could not fight and win a land war against superior invading Russian forces in Ukraine, and they no longer have a credible nuclear deterrent with which to threaten Russia.  For a deeper discussion, see these  The Saker references: here and here.

This is the significance of the attempted visits of two major US Navy warships through the Dardanelles to the Black Sea. An intended show of strength turned out to be a show of weakness when US plans were cancelled.

Finally, there is summitry. It is significant that Biden publicly proposed a summit with Putin, in his recent civil telephone conversation with Putin informing him of the latest round of US sanctions.  Putin and Russian official spokesmen (Peskov, Zakharova) have responded to the summit idea politely but very cautiously so far.

Is the US  President gaslighting Putin?  On one hand, offering a summit to Putin, but on the other hand, implementing punitive sanctions?  Like an abusive man in a bad marriage: on the one hand, offering going to counselling together – while beating up his suffering wife yet again.   Putin knows this and is not fooled. He will take his own time to decide when, where and if to have a summit meeting with Biden. Putin holds the high cards.

But there may be a genuine interest in a summit on Biden’s part. Putin will first want to know, what is in this for Russia? I would not expect any early announcement of dates.  Russia will be watching carefully what happens in Ukraine in coming weeks. – whether Biden wants to, or can, influence Zelensky to rein in his Ukronazi war criminals fighting on the eastern front.

Interesting and even somewhat dangerous times.

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