A new cold war between Biden and Putin

Khattar Abou Diab

Published: Updated:

US President Joe Biden’s firm approach seems to have temporarily succeeded in thwarting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new plan in Ukraine. However, it is too early to judge the foreign policy of the Biden administration and the consequences of the new Cold War.

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For the second year in a row, the COVID-19 world war rages on as the global death toll keeps climbing. However, this has not prevented the rise of geopolitical competition during this transitional phase as a prelude to a “post-covid world.”

Nearly 100 days after Biden’s administration took office, tensions between Russia and the West on the one hand and the United States and China (and their allies) on the other are clearly escalating. Meanwhile, the Middle East remains a playground for power and energy conflicts as strategical competition mounts between Iran, Turkey, Israel, and major powers. From Ukraine to the Middle East to the South China Sea, alongside the African Coast and Afghanistan, the centers of tension and confrontation warn of a new cold war and hint at a duel between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.
Since early March, Russia mobilized troops along Ukraine’s eastern borders and in the Crimean Peninsula, which led to a severe diplomatic crisis that represented the first big challenge to Biden’s presidency. As Vice President during the Obama administration, Biden had been in charge of the Ukrainian dossier, and he has probably learned a lesson or two from Obama’s underplaying of the Russian threat and designation of Germany as mediator.

Perhaps for this reason, and based on his personal experience, one can safely assume that Biden will be the first US President since the end of the Cold War to leave the illusion of “reviving” relations with Moscow at the door of the White House. This is especially true because the political settlement of the conflict with Ukraine has been at a standstill since the Minsk agreements in 2015. Today, in line with the Ukrainian President’s urging calls for a stronger US engagement, Washington is putting on its gendarme costume once again in Europe, given the sensitivity of the situation following Ukraine’s request to join the NATO.

The timing of these US positions follows a huge show of force by Russia through military maneuvers and the mobilization of tens of thousands of soldiers, paving the way for a broad Russian intervention in the Donbas region east of Ukraine. At the same time, artillery clashes escalate between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in a conflict that has claimed the lives of around 14,000 victims since 2014. Meanwhile, the West is puzzled as to Russia’s intentions: do these mobilizations aim at confronting internal developments in Ukraine that may conflict with Russia’s interests? Or do they aim to respond to Washington’s intransigence after Biden called Putin a “killer” on 16 March?

According to European analysts and Russian political experts, the recent Russian movements are part of President Putin’s “strategy of chaos.” This strategy, which Putin has been pursuing since his arrival to the Kremlin, is centered on upending the rules of the game, starting from Georgia in 2008, to Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015. The aim of Putin’s strategy is to put Russia back on the map and avenge the fall of the Soviet Union, which he considers the biggest geopolitical mistake of the twentieth century. Thanks to the poor performance of Barack Obama’s administration and the “infiltration” of the Trump administration, Putin was able to help instill “more chaos, confusion, and conflict in the world” as part of the ultimate objective of reaching a multipolar, multidimensional world. However, though such a world meets the Kremlin’s aspirations according to Russia’s detractors, it does not exempt American and European powers from their culpability for the global chaos, the lack of governance, and the rift in globalization.

To counter Putin’s Ukraine offense, Biden resorted to Trump’s favorite weapon and announced new sanctions on April 15. According to Washington, these sanctions serve as a response to Russian cyberattacks in 2020 and Russian interference in the last US election campaign. They also send a clear message: the US will not bow to its former rival and is ready for the duel.

Thus, Biden’s arrival in the White House changes the rules of the game for Ukraine, which counts on the US and the NATO to deter Russia from threatening its safety and territorial integrity. In this context, Russia’s mounting diplomatic and military pressure on Ukraine can be partially explained by Kiev’s rapprochement with the Biden administration, which has voiced its support for Ukraine and willingness to get reinvolved in the NATO. The dispatching of 500 additional US soldiers to Germany marks a renewed US investment in Europe, which occurred shortly after Biden increased the US military presence in the Black Sea and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Biden did not halt the delivery of non-lethal defense weapons to Kiev, authorized by Trump in 2017. In early March, the Pentagon announced $125 million additional military aid to Ukraine, including two armed patrol boats to defend the country’s territorial waters.

In parallel with the escalation on the Ukrainian front, mutual declarations of diplomats as persona non grata have been on the rise in Western capitals and Moscow. Interestingly, not long after he warned against crossing red lines with his country, the Russian president showcased his flexibility as Moscow finally sent appeasement signals to Kiev; ergo, to its Western allies. First, Russia decided to withdraw the troops deployed near the Ukraine border and in Crimea; then, Putin announced his willingness to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky in Moscow. While Kiev viewed that “the reduction of forces leads to a relative appeasement of tensions,” the US expected “actions, not words,” vowing to “keep monitoring the situation closely.” In the same vein, NATO’s reaction was apprehensive.

In terms of geopolitical developments, Ankara’s alignment with Washington in the Ukraine file was remarkable, given its potential threat on Russian-Turkish informal agreements in Syria and Libya. Moreover, this alignment may hinder Russia’s efforts to turn its gains in recent years, be they circumstantial or positional, into a definitive concentration of power in the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf after leveraging the weak US policies and the US threat to pull its forces from the region.

Overall, Biden’s firm approach seems to have temporarily succeeded in thwarting Putin’s new plan in Ukraine. However, it is too early to judge the foreign policy of the Biden administration and the consequences of the new Cold War should the Sino-Russian harmony and complementarity continue.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab London-based outlet al-Arab.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.