The latest tensions between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are definitely giving political analysts from all over the world a headache, as they try to decrypt the discourses of the two presidents and somehow foresee where they’re leading. The United States and Russia have a number of important topics on their current agenda, such as the developments in Ukraine, Syria, the Iranian nuclear file or the situation in Northern Africa. USA and Russia also fell out over the poisoning and sentencing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the SolarWinds cyber-attacks scandal and Moscow’s bounties on US troops in Afghanistan.
Biden’s vested interest
Yet there are two personal matters that seem to particularly interest the White House leader, Joe Biden – Russia’s interference with the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, as well as the smear campaign targeting his son, Hunter Biden, and the scandal revolving the latter’s five-year spell at the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
Russia’s repeated intrusions in the US presidential election were the trigger behind the latest events. But let’s discuss them in sequence in order to get the full picture. On March 16, a report of the National Intelligence Council titled “Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections” revealed over a 16-page spread that Russia’s actions were aimed at “denigrating the candidacy of President Biden and the Democrat Party, benefiting former president Trump, undermining confidence in US election processes and increasing sociopolitical divisions among the American people”.
The document provides an exhaustive list of all foreign interferences with the 2020 presidential election, and unequivocally disproves a number of conspiracy theories circulated by Trump and his allies. The report doesn’t explain just Russia’s “modus operandi”, but the workings of other stakeholders, such as China, Iran and others.
The report disconfirms the allegations Trump and his staff made concerning relations Biden and his family have in Ukraine. The American Intelligence Community presented a detailed analysis of how Putin knew and most likely coordinated Moscow’s operations targeting the US presidential election campaign.
“A key element of Moscow's strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives – including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden — US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration” the latest report of the American Intelligence Community reveals.
Russia’s operation in Ukraine was facilitated by Ukrainian MP Andri Derkach, the latter actually playing a prominent role in Russia’s smear campaign targeting Biden and his son and having close ties to Russian intelligence, the report also shows.
Another key role was played by Konstantin Kilimnik, who is also connected with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the report also indicates.
Kilimink and Derkach met with Trump administration-linked people and provided materials to advocate for formal investigations, and Derkach publicly released four audio recordings in an attempt to involve Biden in allegedly corrupt activities.
Kilimink was a close associate of Paul Manfort, who acted as Trump’s campaign chief in 2016. Last year Trump issued a pardon for Manfort, who was criminally indicted in an investigation conducted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. All these stories, which very much resemble a spycraft novel, are included in the latest report of the American Intelligence Community.
From “the bored kid at the back of the classroom” to “killer”
The very day the report was released, Joe Biden told ABC News that he agreed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a "killer" and would "pay a price" for interfering in US elections.
During the interview, Biden revealed he had warned Putin about a potential response during a call in late January. “We had a long talk, he and I, I know him relatively well. And the conversation started off, I said, 'I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred [the allegations in the report, e.n.], then be prepared!”
Putin’s response followed shortly and was childlike, sounding much like “back at you!”
The Kremlin dismissed as unfounded the claims of the American intelligence community, saying they are used as an excuse to introduce new sanctions. Russia’s ambassador in the United States, Anatoly Antonov, flew to Moscow on March 21 for consultations.
Biden’s cold shoulder to Putin and a possible freeze of US-Russia relations would be utterly counter-productive. Worst-case scenario, the two countries could slip back into a Cold-War paranoia, like in 1983, when against the backdrop of mutual distrust, Soviet leaders actually considered the possibility of US forces preparing a preemptive nuclear strike on the USSR. The Soviet strongman at the time was Yuri Andropov, former KGB chief and one of the people Putin looked up to the most.
Scenarios for Putin’s military plans: the Baltic States and Eastern Europe in the crosshairs
American-Russian tensions escalated amidst growing fears that Russia could plan a new attack on European states. After Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed an increasingly militarized Russian presence in what Moscow describes as a vital geopolitical area, a red line which the West shouldn’t cross. In a recent analysis published by Politico, Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, asks “could Putin launch another invasion?”
“Now, on the seventh anniversary of the Crimean Anschluss, many of the same vectors that produced the invasion of Ukraine are here again. Anticipating their trajectory and formulating a plan ought to be among the Biden administration’s main concerns”, Aron writes.
The author claims the annexation of Crimea occurred against the backdrop of Putin’s declining popularity ratings, which after Crimea soared to 81%, after standing at only 65% the previous year. It’s a high score, similar to his 2008 rating of 88%, reported after the invasion of Georgia.
Politico also writes that, in the event Putin decides to have another shot at Eastern Europe, five regional states are possible targets. Three of them – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – are the sites of “frozen conflicts” that can be easily thawed by Russian troops of Moscow proxies. Another easy target would be Belarus, a country with a large Russian population and close ties with Moscow. The fifth country, Kazakhstan, has more ethnic Russians – 3.5 million – than any other ex-Soviet state, with the exception of Ukraine.
Leon Aron notes that Putin would secure a genuine image boost if he attacked Baltic States, which are NATO member states. A report of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service published earlier this year expresses real concern with Russia’s military drills in the area. One such exercise is Zapad 2021. “The exercise cannot be ignored by Estonia and NATO, as Russia will deploy tens of thousands of troops along the borders of the Baltic states. The Russian Air Force flight activity over the Baltic Sea will increase significantly, and Russia is likely to move additional warships from the Black Sea and Northern Fleets to the region”, the Estonian intelligence services report reads.
“Russian Blitzkrieg” versus the consolidation of NATO’s defense capabilities
A 2016 report of the RAND Corporation concluded that NATO wouldn’t be able to intervene freely to defend Baltic States in the event of a “blitzkrieg” similar to the swift intervention in Crimea.
Sweden isn’t too comfortable either with Russia’s military crescendo. “Russia’s means of power are limited compared to those of a united Western alliance, but the country could still pose a serious threat on NATO’s eastern flank. At the same time, Western defence efforts are likely to be constrained in the coming years”, experts with the Swedish Defense Research Agency say in a report.
The authors conclude Russia’s possibilities for military aggression against the West are more apparent on the short term, as the West has embarked on a clear but slow improvement of its collective defense, while Russia’s military capability is expected to cap in the 2020s.
In this volatile security context, Romania too is exposed to growing risks. Moscow has actually intensified its rhetoric against Romania amidst this country’s efforts to develop its defense capabilities. And I’m referring particularly to the purchase of Patriot missile systems, HIMARS systems and F-16 jets.
Last but not least, the consolidation of America’s military presence in the bases in Kogălniceanu, Deveselu and Câmpia Turzii has caught Russia’s eye. In a complex security context, Romania can only enhance its defense capacity and consolidate the trans-Atlantic partnership with Washington as the only viable option in the future.