The Biden-Putin war of words has worrying repercussions

The verbal spat reflects not just how bad US-Russia relations are but also the danger of further deterioration

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021. Getty Images
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When the leaders of two global superpowers take personal jabs at each other, their very public exchange becomes more than a mere spectacle. It becomes a source of anxiety and alarm.

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have engaged in a war of words in recent days, and as both men seek re-election at different points this year, the foreign policy dimensions of these elections extend from Europe to the Middle East and the Red Sea.

Despite the notion that Mr Putin favours Mr Biden’s re-election – as he said last Wednesday – several reasons suggest otherwise. Chief among them is Mr Biden’s pivotal role in galvanising Nato and fortifying its support for Ukraine, ultimately expanding the group’s membership. Russia’s international standing has declined lately, due in part to American and European sanctions after the outbreak of war in Ukraine two years ago.

In contrast to Mr Biden, his predecessor and presumptive opponent – Donald Trump – is vowing to resolve the Ukraine conflict not through military decisiveness that would favour Kyiv but through a deal with Moscow. Mr Trump has also pledged unequivocally that Ukraine will not join Nato on his watch. It is a position that, logically speaking, would favour Russia.

This means that Mr Putin’s suggestion that Moscow would like to see Mr Biden defeat Mr Trump appears to be a tactic to unsettle the US administration. Mr Biden surely knows this, particularly as the governing Democratic Party holds lingering resentment towards the Kremlin for historical reasons, accusing it of meddling in the 2016 presidential election that led to Mr Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

However, this does not imply that Moscow eagerly awaits a Trump presidency, especially due to his unpredictability.

Even as he sparred verbally with Mr Biden, Mr Putin took to the skies aboard a modernised, Soviet-era nuclear bomber to remind the West of its potency in potential nuclear conflicts. In response, the US cautioned against launching nuclear anti-satellite weapons into space, categorising it as a perilous escalation in Cold War power dynamics and a breach of the 1967 treaty prohibiting the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.

Despite the notion that Putin favours Biden’s re-election, several reasons suggest otherwise

Moscow denied having any intentions to manufacture and launch weapons into space, accusing the Biden administration of a “malicious fabrication” aimed at securing US Congressional approval for military aid to Ukraine. Concurrently, American diplomats mobilised efforts to garner international condemnation against Russia, reaching out not only to the G7 but also to China and India, urging them to censure Moscow for jeopardising global stability with a potential nuclear arms race in space.

The US Department of the Treasury then announced sanctions on more than 500 entities and individuals, coinciding with the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine. This marks the most extensive US sanctions package against Moscow to date. Some of these sanctions, crafted in collaboration with other nations, specifically target the Russian military-industrial complex and companies in third countries facilitating Moscow’s alleged access to sanctioned goods.

These sanctions carry profound consequences for Russia and are aimed at increasing its international isolation. And yet today, isolation is not limited to Russia. It also affects the US – not due to the war in Ukraine but rather because of Washington’s stand in the Gaza conflict.

At a recent G20 meeting in Brazil, America found itself isolated. It faced criticism for shielding Israel from accountability and for, once again, using its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

At the meeting, ministers from various countries – including from allied nations such as Australia – spoke candidly, delivering sharp criticisms against Washington. Brazil and South Africa, along with other nations, expressed dissatisfaction with US protection of Israel and strong displeasure with Israeli actions against civilians in Gaza. Countries such as Spain, Ireland and Argentina were among those displaying dismay and anger too.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken avoided confrontation, responding simply by saying: “There may be differences over tactics … but we’re trying to focus on actually getting results.” Indeed, the Biden administration continues to seek a new formula to resolve the Gaza crisis, as it attempts to revive the two-state solution.

The Gaza issue holds less significance for Russia right now, as it remains focused on the war in Ukraine and on its rivalry with the West. What carry weight for Russia are assurances it has reportedly received from Iran, that the Houthi operations in the Red Sea will not affect Russian interests or those of its friends.

In a speech to be delivered on Thursday, Mr Putin is expected to clarify Russia’s strategic position and the nature of its relations with the West. From describing it as no longer a friend of Moscow, will he label it an “enemy”? This would underscore the serious deterioration in relations and no foreseeable prospect of their restoration.

There are worries that tensions will escalate, reaching a dangerous confrontation between nuclear states. The danger lies particularly in the breakdown of communication between the Russia and the US.

International confusion is evident in various files, notably the conflict in Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza war for the Europeans. The ongoing discussions do not focus on a comprehensive resolution to these conflicts. They settle for the limits of “crisis management” and working towards “lasting stability”, not towards achieving a “peaceful settlement” or peace with unequivocal guarantees for Israeli security.

Russia is outside the scope of the US’s search for a new “mechanism” based on de-escalation and diplomatic resolution with vague assurances. Washington’s focus, instead, is on a new axis that includes influential Arab countries, particularly those that have access to Hamas. I am given to understand that the Biden administration seeks to coerce Iran into persuading Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis to de-escalate. If successful, the chances of the war in Gaza expanding into a regional conflict are low.

Meanwhile, the worry is that even as Mr Biden continues to tread cautiously with the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his war of words with Mr Putin has so far been unrestrained. In an election year, this carries added significance.

Published: February 25, 2024, 2:00 PM