Biden Will Putin Can the U.S. Divest Russia from China?

President Joe Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16 to seek to restore “predictability and stability” to U.S.-Russian relations. The White House announcement comes just a day after a visit to Russia by Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee. Why is the U.S. and China focusing on Russia at the same time? Some analysts believe that the U.S. intends to divorce Russia from its alliance with Russia; however, experts say that this is unlikely in Russia under Putin’s rule.

In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Iceland earlier this month, Secretary of State John Blinken emphasized that despite their differences, the U.S. and Russia should seek cooperation in areas that would promote global stability. During the meeting between the two foreign ministers, the State Department announced sanctions against companies and individuals involved in the construction and financing of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany, but decided to exempt the project’s operator and its director from penalties.

U.S. Extends Olive Branch to Russia?

Dan Yegin, vice chairman of information consulting firm IHS Markit, said in an interview with CNBC TV that Putin’s relations with the U.S. and the West have become increasingly distant since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, while China and Russia have deepened cooperation in the economic, political and defense fields in recent years. Against this backdrop, the partial waiver of U.S. sanctions on the Nord Stream-2 project is an olive branch thrown by the U.S. to Russia in order to “divorce Russia from the growing Russian-Chinese alliance.

“Nord Stream-2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, is nearing completion. The U.S. has opposed the project since the Trump administration, and the Biden administration has continued its opposition. The U.S. views the project as a geostrategic tool for Russia that will create European energy dependence on Russia and threaten European energy security. Moreover, the pipeline bypasses Ukraine and Poland, and its commissioning will damage the economic and geopolitical interests of these two U.S. allies.

The U.S. government has asked Germany to abandon the project, and the U.S. Congress passed a bill last year with high bipartisan support, calling for sanctions against companies participating in the Nord Stream-2 project. But Germany’s Merkel government has been clear in its support for the project, insisting that it is a purely commercial, non-political project that will strengthen Europe’s energy security and reduce its vulnerability to gas supply cuts. Russia has accused the U.S. of blocking it in order to capture the European market so it can sell higher-priced U.S. gas.

The Biden administration imposed sanctions on the 19th of this month while specifically exempting Nord Stream-2 AG and the company’s German CEO Matthias Warnig from punishment, saying the move was in the U.S. national interest.

Reuters previously reported that before the State Department announced the waiver, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had said the waiver would help normalize relations between Moscow and Washington.

Mark Episkopos, national security correspondent for the National Interest, told VOA that the waiver could be seen as a “very cautious, very early” sign that the U.S. wants to normalize U.S.-Russian relations, and that the Biden-Putin summit was only a very early step toward that goal. The Biden-Putin summit was also a very early step toward that goal.

“But it could be that Washington wants to make a long-term repositioning of U.S.-Russian relations, and the China factor is a big reason why that’s happening,” Episkopos said.

However, Episkopos feels the term “olive branch” is a bit of an overstatement.

“I would say that this waiver is a show of good faith by the United States in advance of the U.S.-Russia summit,” he said, “a diplomatic good faith to show that we are serious about improving relations, that we are serious about seeking common ground.”

Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political and Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, sees the waiver as an olive branch indeed, but unlike Yergin, he sees it as an olive branch thrown to Germany, not Russia.

Weitz told the Voice of America that the U.S. has made flexible adjustments to the sanctions in order to deter and punish Russia while not upsetting Germany. The four Russian vessels and five Russian companies involved in the project were sanctioned, but Nord Stream-2 AG, in which a German participates and serves as CEO, was exempted.

What are the chances of the U.S. winning the “divestiture” of Russia?

According to Wise, as long as Putin remains in power, the United States is unlikely to divest Russia from China in the near future.

According to Episcopus, if the U.S. continues to be tough on China and Russia at the same time, the extent of the Russian-Chinese alliance may even deepen; and the differences between China and Russia may give the U.S. some room for balance.

Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to Putin as “my best friend” during his 2019 visit to Russia, and Putin said this week that Sino-Russian relations are “at the best time in history,” but a series of recent U.S. moves against Russia still have China on high alert. After the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers met in Iceland, the top Chinese diplomatic official, Yang Jiechi, traveled to Russia. On the same day that the White House announced the June summit between Biden and Putin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the strategic partnership between China and Russia “has been refined into gold and is as solid as a rock” and that the relationship between the two countries “has withstood the test of international turbulence.

On the other hand, President Biden has been very tough on Russia since he took office, both in terms of actual sanctions and verbal tit-for-tat. During his presidential campaign, Biden called Russia the “biggest threat” to the United States, and in an interview with ABC TV in March, he said Putin would pay for interfering in the U.S. election and agreed that Putin was a “killer”. In turn, Putin responded that “people always project their own views on themselves onto others” and “wished Biden good health”, and made a point to emphasize that the blessing was not ironic.

Some observers fear that the U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations have simultaneously fallen to a freezing point, while the rising Sino-Russian relationship will put the U.S. at a disadvantage and make the U.S. do half the work in dealing with the Chinese challenge.

The Center for A New American Security, a U.S. think tank, issued a report in January that said the synergy between China and Russia is the biggest headache for the United States because it increases the challenge posed by China to the United States.

“I’m happy to keep Russia away from China, and I’ve been studying this issue for several years. But I don’t think that’s going to happen under a Putin government,” Wyz said. He said there might be new opportunities after Putin leaves office.

Wise noted that Putin sees the improvement in Russian-Chinese relations as one of his major diplomatic achievements, and it is also hard to imagine that anyone within Putin’s government would feel it is time to give up these gains that have been made and abandon China in favor of trying to improve relations with the West. Wyz believes the Putin government has already abandoned the West and that Putin’s attitude toward the United States is very negative.

“In the short term I don’t see what the U.S. can do or offer that might sever the Russian-Chinese alliance,” Wyze said.

Episkopos said the success of the “divestiture” depends largely on how Russia reacts, and one of the most important things that will determine Russia’s attitude is whether Western sanctions are expected to be lifted.

Like Wise, Episkopos believes that Russia is very pessimistic about the West, has no hope that sanctions will be lifted and makes diplomatic decisions on the assumption that they will not be lifted.

If “divestment” is difficult to achieve, is there any hope of normalizing U.S.-Russian relations? Episkopos thinks it will be difficult, too, because sanctions are still a huge factor. Although there is still some room for discussion and negotiation on issues such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the North Korean nuclear issue and climate change, normalization of relations is likely to be difficult as long as sanctions remain in place.

“Sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future,” Episkopos said.

What can the U.S.-Russia summit change?

Episkopos said Moscow and Beijing have been very good at joining forces to present a united anti-Western front to contain and confront NATO, and the United States in particular. But the current Russian-Chinese alliance is more rhetorical, and there is not much agreement between the two sides on a practical level, nor is there a military alliance agreement.

But Episcopus also noted that the situation can change rapidly. Today both China and Russia are increasingly demonstrating toughness toward the United States and also releasing strong signals of cooperation with each other, although on paper deeper military cooperation has not yet been achieved and is not out of the question in the future, and the United States needs to balance the triangle in time.

The differences between Russia and China are mainly over territorial policy and the struggle for influence. First, neither side likes the other’s policy of territorial expansion. Russia does not formally support China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and China does not formally support Russia’s territorial claims in Georgia and Ukraine. Also, some Chinese consider Vladivostok (also known as Vladivostok), the easternmost point of Russia, as a lost territory that China has not recovered.

Secondly, in Central Asia, which Russia considers its “backyard,” China is expanding its economic penetration, which Russia resents but is currently unable to stop, as China is far more powerful economically than Russia.

“When talking about the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, we also have to ask who is the junior partner here and who is the senior partner, and I’m afraid Russia is not going to like the answer to that question,” Episkopos said, “so I think the Biden administration is trying to exploit those factors at the Geneva summit. “

Without the U.S. factor, Episkopos said, these differences and grievances between China and Russia would have come to the fore and relations between Moscow and Beijing would have slowly deteriorated. But right now China and Russia are so focused on bridging these differences in order to form a united front against the West that they have become hidden factors whose role has not yet become apparent.

Episcopus believes the White House appears to have recognized that this competitive contest between three nuclear-armed powers, with China as the greater long-term strategic threat, is a situation in which the United States cannot afford to put itself in a two-front war.

“In any triangular relationship, your goal is always to isolate one side by joining forces with the other. If reality doesn’t allow for true teaming up, then at least some degree of cooperation must be sought,” Episcopus said.

Thus, the U.S. strategic goal may be to normalize relations with Russia in order to lay the geopolitical groundwork for a future confrontation with China.

But both Episkopos and Waits said the June 16 Geneva summit is unlikely to bring about such changes, and that outsiders should not expect too much from the summit. They predicted that no concrete agreements will be reached at the summit, no meaningful statements will be made, and sanctions against Russia will not be lifted. At best, the summit will be a mutual expression of intent to stabilize bilateral relations. It is, as the Biden administration described in its announcement, “a quest to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russian relationship.”

According to Wise, this language from the Biden administration implies that the United States is not trying to establish good relations with Russia, which they understand is unrealistic; a stable relationship that avoids war and reduces confrontation is the best situation in the current state of affairs.

Episcopus noted that if stabilizing U.S.-Russian relations becomes a long-term strategy for the U.S. government, then the United States may be on the verge of a substantial shift in grand strategy.

“This grand strategy in which we realize that a two-front war with Russia and China is something we should avoid at all costs, and we should focus on the larger threat in the long run,” Episkopos said.