Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, the U.S and Russia have had a notoriously acrimonious relationship: the U.S has levied many sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin has openly supported antagonist regimes (like Venezuela), the Kremlin has been accused of interfering in U.S elections via hacking and misinformation, and lately, Moscow was accused of orchestrating the massive hacking on SolarWinds.
The U.S and Russia have already had a rocky start on their relationship since Biden took power in January. Biden has already called Putin a killer, has sanctioned several Russian officials over their involvement in the heinous Navalny poisoning, threaten sanctions on any company who wants to deal with the controversial Nordstream 2 pipeline, and lately sanctioned and expelled 10 Russian functionaries over the hacking on Solar Winds and Russian electoral interference.
In response to this, Putin has also expelled U.S functionaries from Russia, maintained a hardline response against his political opposition (with Navalny seriously ill in his prison), and has now decided to make a substantial military mobilization in the border between Russia and Ukraine.
While in his latest call with Putin Biden called for de-escalation and even proposed a summit between both leaders in the near future, tensions are most likely to remain high, as both governments are facing challenges to establishing some sense of normality between U.S and Russia.
The thorny relationship between the U.S and Russia would have proven difficult for any President, however, the domestic political dynamics around Russia might make it even worst. Russia has gone from an issue that was analyzed from think tanks in D.C and vaguely discussed by top politicians to a new weapon in the partisan wars that embroil the capital.
The American Intelligence Community and the Senate have accused Vladimir Putin of interfering with the 2016 election, while Democrats also accused former President Trump of being a lackey of the Russian dictator. The (in)famous Russian collusion investigation, conducted by Special Counsel Robert Muller, created headaches to the early Trump administration and further ensured Democrats that Trump was helped by Putin, with Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter even saying that Trump was an “illegitimate president”, in part due to Russian interference.
How the public views Russia as a threat to the U.S is also determined by party politics, with a Gallup poll showing that while most Americans (45%) believe China is the greatest enemy of the United States, the number varies significantly by party affiliation. A vast majority of Republicans (76%) see China as the biggest threat, on the other hand, only a quarter of Democrats have the same opinion on China, with almost half (45%) of them saying that Russia is the biggest threat facing the country.
This divide can also be observed when people are asked about the importance of election interference by foreign powers, with 78% of Democrats saying this was a very important issue, while only 37% of Republicans believed the same, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll.
Partisanship, it appears, is becoming a determinant factor in the way the American Public perceives foreign threats, with Republicans being far more concerned with China than Russia, and Democrats the other way around.
Biden then has domestic political incentives to have a strong stance against Russian actions around the world. This, when added to the already competing geopolitical interests of both countries, makes reaching a peaceful recalibration of U.S and Russia relations a difficult task.
Hacking, Election interference
In 2017, the American Intelligence Community published a report where it concluded that the Kremlin was heavily involved in disinformation operations during the 2016 presidential election. The Senate’s Intelligence Committee found, in a bipartisan unanimous vote, in 2020 that the Report was accurate and reliable and warned that Russia and other actors were using “informational warfare” to create discord within democratic governments.
Furthermore, the Russians were also accused by the American Intelligence Community of being behind one of the greatest security breaches in American history, the hacking of Solar Winds in late 2020, a company that provided cybernetic services to a big number of government agencies and prestigious American companies.
Experts have associated both of these tactics as part of a new tool the Kremlin has been using over the last few years to expand their presence over the world: “hybrid warfare”. According to a testimony given by an expert of the RAND corporation to the U.S House of Representatives in 2017, one of the key goals of Russian hybrid warfare is to influence the policy and politics of Western democracies.
The problem Biden faces is not only Russian actions aimed directly against the United States, but also against its allies. If Putin has the capability of wreak havoc on a developed and strong democracy like the U.S, what is stopping him from doing the same in weaker democracies that are vital to U.S interests in the world?
Russia show its military teeth
The 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea is an example of how hybrid warfare can be used against western allies, as Putin relied on unconventional tactics, like the famous “little green men” and informational warfare, to annex the territory with almost no bloodshed.
Although Crimea was annexed smoothly, the invasion opened a conflict in Eastern Ukraine between forces that are still loyal to the central democratic government of Kiev and those who are looking for complete integration with Russia.
The conflict, which has already left more than 10,000 dead and over a million internally displaced Ukrainians, can be a catalyst of a wider conflict between the U.S and Russia as Ukraine has begun a tight cooperation program with NATO. Additionally, other countries in the alliance,mainly those in Eastern Europe, might see these Russian actions as an example of how they could be targetted by the Kremlin in the future.
The situation has worsened significantly over the last weeks, as Russia has decided to mobilize over 40,000 troops to the border with Ukraine plus another 40,000 troops already mobilized in the Crimean peninsula. The Ukrainian government has said that they have tried to contact Moscow to talk about the issue with no avail, and both countries have already begun expelling some diplomats amid the growing crisis.
It remains unclear if Putin’s decision to mobilize thousands of combatants to the border is either leverage to extract concessions from Biden or the preliminary phases of a broader conflict. Nevertheless, the United States and NATO would have to determine how to firmly respond against any potential russian aggression, defend their Ukrainian allies, while not risking a broader war with the Kremlin.
The United States and its allies still have a superior military, economic, and technological advantage over Russia, however, Moscow is not the only challenge that Washington D.C is facing. China is increasingly acting as a credible competitor against American hegemony, and Biden knows that any type of conflict with Russia would bring both competitors closer together.
If Biden wants to de-escalate tensions with Russia, he will have to find a way to do it without looking weak at home, while ensuring that American interests are protected in a way that does not compel Moscow to react violently, all while keeping an eye on the real competition: China.