US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are at loggerheads. Photos: Eric Baradat and Pavel Golovkin / AFP

In his landmark foreign policy speech delivered from the US State Department on February 4, President Joe Biden proclaimed “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”

That maxim was put to the test last week. And it failed to make the grade.  

A confusing picture emerges as US diplomacy toward Russia in recent weeks, especially in the past week since April 13, runs a zigzag course. To recap, Washington has been quietly encouraging Kiev to be belligerent along the contact line with Ukraine’s breakaway region of Donbass. 

Repeatedly affirming the United States’ “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and concerns over “the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders,” the Biden administration has been steadily boosting Ukraine’s military capability to provoke Russia. 

Moscow estimated that a precipitate situation might be engineered as in 2008 when Washington encouraged the regime in Georgia to pick a fight with its breakaway regions that inevitably led to a conflict with Russia.

Thus, on April 7, the Kremlin warned that Russia would keep military forces near the border with Ukraine and could take “measures” if a precipitate situation arose threatening Donbass or Crimea. 

In a reversal of the policy of former US president Barack Obama not to provoke Russia, the Biden administration has begun supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine, which has fired up revanchist neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists.

Indeed, the US is fully aware that the Ukraine issue concerns Russia’s core interests, and Moscow will never give in. Simply put, if Ukraine joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the reach of that alliance gets extended to Russia’s doorstep. 

The Ukrainian army conducts a drill with military tanks while military activity continues in the Donbas region, Ukraine on April 18, 2021. Photo: Armed Forces of Ukraine / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Thus the announcement in Kiev in early April of large-scale military exercises planned between Ukraine and NATO armies disregarded the Kremlin’s repeated warnings that any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine would threaten stability near Russia’s borders.

On top of it, Turkey informed Russia on April 9 that two US warships were due to cross the Bosphorus and enter the Black Sea to remain there until May 4. 

Amid these rising tensions – with Washington drawing the European Union and NATO into its containment strategy against Russia – Biden telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 13.

According to the Kremlin readout, Biden expressed interest in interaction with Russia on pressing matters such as “ensuring strategic stability and arms control, Iran’s nuclear program, the situation in Afghanistan and global climate change.”

The White House readout said Biden proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the “full range of issues” facing the US and Russia. 

Biden’s motivation remained a mystery, since only two days later, on April 15, the State Department disclosed that he had also signed an executive order imposing more sanctions against Russia and that the US Treasury had already issued a directive that prohibits American financial institutions from participating in the primary market for ruble or non-ruble denominated Russian bonds, the intention being to weaken and destroy the Russian currency.

Besides, the US also expelled 10 Russian diplomats.  

Either Biden had a memory lapse and forgot he was to sign the executive order when he called Putin and played nice, or he was plain insincere. Curiously, the executive order also delegated the executive power to the State Department to use its discretion to impose even more sanctions if needed in the future.

This strange behavior has triggered speculation. Some say Biden may not be in control of the Russia policies that are being driven by the “Deep State.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned Washington. Photo: AFP/Russian Foreign Ministry/Sputnik

But Moscow reacted strongly.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that Washington’s “hostile moves are dangerously raising the level of confrontation” and that the only plausible explanation for such strange behavior is that the US “is not ready to accept the objective reality of a multipolar world in which American hegemony is not possible. It is placing its bets on sanctions pressure and interference in our domestic affairs.”  

But then came yet another surprise, when within hours, on April 15, Biden appeared personally before the media to make what appeared to be a conciliatory statement about Putin and Russia.

He insisted: “The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle … of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship … When I spoke to President Putin, I expressed my belief that communication between the two of us, personally and directly, was to be essential in moving forward to a more effective relationship …

“Now is the time to de-escalate. The way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process. The US is prepared to continue constructively to move forward that process.

“My bottom line is this: Where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. Where Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond.”

However, as it turned out, these sugar-coated words hid a bitter pill to swallow – that Russia should gracefully accept the sanctions and simply reconcile with the idea of a selective engagement with Washington whenever it suited US interests. 

Amid such contradictions, a thaw of the US-Russia tensions cannot be a realistic possibility. Moscow is unlikely to compromise on core interests. On the other hand, Biden also knows that Russia’s participation is vital for solving many major global issues and to that extent, he may want to ease tensions.

Indeed, a pragmatic working relationship also cannot be ruled out, as the US is well aware that Russia is interested in easing tensions with the West, given the challenges it is facing over its domestic economy, production lines and stability in the Middle East. 

Simply put, the current tensions could have unpredictable consequences. There is room for the two sides to interact over issues such as strategic stability and arms control, the Iran nuclear issue, Afghanistan or climate change. Above all, Russia is also keen to be a participant on the global stage.

Russian and Chinese soldiers take aim in a 2018 joint military exercise. Image: Twitter

But a summit cannot produce substantive results unless it is backed up with adequate preparations and in-depth exchanges regarding each side’s interests and concerns. But the current state of play does not allow space for constructive diplomacy. 

Russia has since blacklisted eight current and former American officials and sent 10 diplomats packing in retaliation for US sanctions. Evidently, as the Russian statement put it, these were “just a fraction of the capabilities at our disposal.”

Nonetheless, the State Department promptly lamented this “escalatory” response and warned that it might respond. In effect, the US insists on its prerogative to impose sanctions, but Russia should not retaliate.

How far this pantomime will continue under the rubric of “diplomacy” remains to be seen. Expectations must be kept low. Evidently, the Biden administration has no interest in using diplomacy to wean Russia away from an alliance with China, as Henry Kissinger once advised, so as to isolate and encircle China, the United States’ main archetypal rival on the world stage.

Biden instead expects Russia to submit to American writ and thereby deny strategic depth to China. 

But will Russia submit to the US hegemony – a nation that held its ground against Napoleon and Hitler? No, it will never.

The Ukraine issue will, therefore, remain a tinderbox, which can blow up any time and become a laceration wound on Russia’s body politic and contaminate and weaken it – which, of course, is also the ultimate logic of the regime change in Kiev in the 2014 color revolution masterminded by US State Department officials including Victoria Nuland, who has resurfaced as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Biden administration.  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.