Are things warming up between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin? Photo: AFP / Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik

Moscow butted the grand old trans-Atlantic alliance in the chest on Monday with the Foreign Ministry announcing that it will suspend the NATO military liaison mission with effect from November 1 and recall the accreditation of its staff in response to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s decision to withdraw the accreditation of eight Russian diplomats.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov curtly added, “If NATO has some urgent matters, it may contact our ambassador in Belgium.” Sparring has begun for the next NATO summit in Madrid on June 29-30, 2022.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a recent visit to Madrid that the summit will adopt NATO’s next strategic concept, “which will reflect the new security environment” and the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 2030 agenda that aims to deal with a “more unpredictable and dangerous world” of “increasingly aggressive” Russian behavior, China “flexing its economic might to intimidate others,” and instability in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel. 

NATO plans to shake off the gloom over the defeat in Afghanistan by marching on. NATO-Russia conversations had dried up already much before that sobering moment. The 1977 NATO-Russia Founding Act has been moribund since 2014, when relations between Moscow and the West landed in a deep freeze. 

But in such situations, there is always a tipping point. Most certainly, the regional tour by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to Georgia, Ukraine and Romania en route to the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels (October 21-22) came to be that. 

Also read: US Ukraine policy may wreck NATO

Austin’s remarks suggested that an encirclement of Russia in a new arc that includes Transcaucasia is in the cards. “Russian aggression” was his constant refrain.

On the last leg of his tour in Romania, Austin claimed, “The security and stability of the Black Sea are in the US’s national interest and critical for the security of NATO’s eastern flank.”

The Pentagon said Austin’s tour is a way to “reassure allies and partners of America’s commitment to their sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression.”

The power dynamic is shifting. 

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the Kavkaz-2020 military drills at the Kapustin Yar training ground, Astrakhan region, Russia. Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu alleged that the US military “has stepped up work with the full support of its NATO allies to modernize tactical nuclear weapons and their storage sites in Europe.”

He noted that “a cause for special concern is the engagement of pilots from the bloc’s non-nuclear member states in the drills to practice employing tactical nuclear weapons. We regard this as a direct violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 

To be sure, Russia will make countermoves. Shoigu made the above remarks while the chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, was on a high-profile four-day visit to Russia.

Shoigu told Bagheri that Russia is ready to maintain “dynamic and versatile” military cooperation with Iran, and proposed Syria-style cooperation in Afghanistan and “on the territory of neighboring states.” 

After a tour of the Russian Navy’s headquarters in St Petersburg and military facilities in Kronshtadt after talks with Shoigu and with the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, Bagheri voiced satisfaction that “the conclusion of arms agreements and their implementation in the near future will considerably deepen our relationships.”  

The US strategy of encircling Russia has been very consistent since the Bill Clinton presidency when NATO expansion began. Recently declassified Western archival materials confirm Moscow’s claim that then-US secretary of state James Baker and German chancellor Helmut Kohl had assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev verbally that NATO would not expand “one inch” to the east in a post-Cold War setting. 

By 2003, president George W Bush unilaterally withdrew the US from the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty, which was a cornerstone of global security, anchored on the complex security matrix of gaining strategic advantage by de-energizing the nuclear potential of a probable opponent.   

President Barack Obama followed up with planning missile-shield deployments in Romania and Poland, just outside Russia’s Western Military District. Obama resigned from his promise in 2012 to then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that after winning a second term, he would reach a consensus with Moscow on missile defense deployment.

Obama’s successor Donald Trump thereafter withdrew the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banning intermediate-range missiles.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after the NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Surveying this debris of broken promises, the paradox of the US-Russia relationship is that while President Joe Biden is content with selective engagement of Russia and is in search of “predictability,” President Vladimir Putin regards the US policy as highly predictable in its potential toxicity but is pleased nonetheless that the engagement is constructive enough. 

Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are probably on the same page here. Interestingly, Putin spoke at some length recently on China. At the Russian Energy Week International Forum last week, Putin said, “As far as I understand the Chinese philosophy, including state-building and governance, it does not include the use of force. 

“I believe China does not need to use force. China is an enormous and powerful economy. It has become the world’s No 1 economy in terms of purchasing power parity, leaving the United States behind. China is capable of achieving its national goals by building up this capacity, and I see no threats here.” Putin was referring to Taiwan. 

As for South China Sea, Putin said wherever “mixed interests are at play … every country in that region should be given a chance to resolve all arising controversial issues without the intervention of non-regional powers in a calm manner relying on the fundamental norms of international law and by way of negotiations. I believe the potential is there, and it is far from being fully tapped.”

There are similarities in the Russian and Chinese strategies – and, possibly, coordination too. Thus the new mantra in the White House is “responsible competition.” Biden needs to focus on his domestic agenda, which is decisive in clinching a second term for his presidency in 2024. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov disclosed on Wednesday that US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, who visited Moscow recently, discussed “various options and certain understandings were reached” on another Putin-Biden meeting.

Asked whether another Putin-Biden meeting was possible this year, Peskov noted that “it is realistic in one format or another,” and added that Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov and Nuland reached some understanding “in terms of the prospects for further dialogue at the highest level in the near future.” 

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.