Russia has recalled its ambassador to the US back home for consultations. This move is a prelude to a bumpier road and a rough ride in the bilateral relations, as the new sanctions, announced by President Biden, come into play. The US intelligence community’s report, which the US president authorized for publication, naturally led to the “killer” monicker for Russia’s head of state.
For those who are about to panic, my word of consolation – international relations have long been in a state of self-containment and self-balancing. Henceforth an apocalypse is not on the cards, but tough times are ahead. President Putin is the first Russian leader who tried to engage in open and subversive warfare, eroding American democracy and institutions. He trusted his actions would remain below the radar of standard military vigilance and would allow time to achieve results before the US establishment comes to its senses.
Vladimir Putin nourished the notion of emerging victorious in a hybrid war by determining the US presidential elections’ outcome, an elusive objective in a conventional war.
When the Russian President ordered his cybersoldats and secret services to engage in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections favouring one of the candidates, he knew there would be retribution if his favourite loses. He refused to acknowledge Biden’s win until the Electoral College’s vote, and that was a personal insult.
By calling Vladimir Putin a killer, Joe Biden spoke the obvious. From the American President’s point of view, retaliation and a stronger language are indispensable. Leaving Kremlin’s actions without punishment would tacitly invite fresh acts of subversion. Putin does not respect weak leaders.
The primary conflict zones are information and cyberspace, where Russia will likely feel the pain. Material damage from sanctions to the economy and public finance will tighten the noose and block critical technology and goods imports.
The primary target of Biden’s tough talk is the American audience. The US President seeks to wrap his strong words in the national security package, focusing on Putin’s humiliating interference into the holy grail of US democracy – its election process. Such a broad bipartisan platform could rally behind most Americans against a brutal and dedicated enemy, undermining former President Trump’s grip on the Republican party.
The consequences for Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia
A confrontation between the United States and Russia amid an escalation of sanctions will strain EU-Russia relations, raising the geopolitical temperature in the entire contact zone between Russia and Eastern Europe. All projects that promote and consolidate Putin’s stranglehold on the EU will be affected, not so much at the stage of their physical completion, but on their coming online and operational mode that could deter Putin from using them as a geopolitical lever.
The options at hand are not confined to more sanctions on Nord Stream and Turk Stream -2 and include creating linkages between Gazprom’s exclusive use of both pipelines and its load up on Ukraine’s gas transit system. This line of action implies renegotiation of terms with the Russian gas monopoly leading to mandatory capacity release options to benefit competitors.
Russia’s ‘asymmetric response
Although most interactions occur in the virtual realm, Russia’s response is likely to be asymmetric in nature but have a physical footprint.
Could Biden have opted for a softer reaction? Hardly. Putin’s fixation to subdue the West has resulted in an unprecedented fall in living standards in the last ten years. He kept focusing scarce resources on undermining institutions and basic principles of Western democracies, trying to take revenge for the fall of the Soviet Union.
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Putin’s negative power and fixation on building up a potential to destroy from within his enemies constitute nothing else but an undeclared act of war, this time of a hybrid one, inflicting equally prohibitive damages, material and financial losses. It was just a matter of time before the West reacted.
Ronald Reagan wrote the recipe for containing Russia, and it all starts with controlling the energy prices as the backbone of Putin’s power. It is hardly coincidental that the price of crude plummeted by 10 percent the day after the US President’s interview. If Biden ignores this rule, funds will continue pouring into Kremlin’s coffers, funding its repressive machine at home and abroad. Exploring and using the vulnerabilities of Putin’s state-oligarchic regime is quintessential, and the one trillion dollars held abroad by his oligarchs top the list.
The Russian President will try to protect his back and consolidate his domestic support base. His most likely target will be the opposition and his imprisoned critic Alexei Navalny, stepping up repression, arbitrary arrests and coercive actions against the few remaining islands of free speech. Putin’s neo-Stalinism will come to the fore of his domestic and foreign policies, including the militarization of social and political life.
Funding such a turn will be at the expense of further cuts in social funding and a drop in living standard. Putting Russia’s economy and public finances on war footing might provide some short-term relief but will devastate the country in the long-term. Unlike China, Russia’s economy and consumption are not on the scale to warrant self-sufficiency and growth potential for its economy. The country lacks the degree of unity and consolidation of society, let alone financial buffers’ needed for prolonged and escalating information war.
Digital sovereignty is a warcry for Putin, but he lacks the resources to control and block Russians’ access to the global network in a cost-benefit and prudent manner. The Kremlin, in all likelihood, will persist in its attempts to block YouTube and Twitter in the context of limiting the opposition’s operational ability to communicate and organize resistance, but alternatives are at hand for the protesters.
An Anschluss with Belarus is an option due to the symbiotic relationship between the fellow dictators. This venue does not offer an easy ride either and might prove fatal to both of them if a rush to the unification unleashes resistances and provokes unintended consequences beyond their control. Russia is not in a position to underwrite any cheque needed to sustain Lukashenka’s regime. Removing him would add to the quandary. The annexation of an independent state is a different ballgame to the one in Crimea, requiring time for the propaganda to work and an array of legal actions to be accomplished to furnish legitimacy to the act.
There is a material difference between Crimea and Belarus. Massive infiltration of “little green” men and Russian secret services agents would have to precede the ”voluntary’ unification, to say nothing of the crippling effect for Putin’s reputation across the post-Soviet space.
The Russian President may choose to escalate the frozen conflicts in the parts of Luhansk and Donbas in Ukraine or South Ossetia in Georgia – regions that Moscow controls and may again opt to annex them. Neither scenarios are risk-free; annexing territories that are not self-sustaining would only burden the already strained Russian budget.
Kremlin’s challenges rest not in the shortcomings of geography but in its persistent failures to secure a competitive economic model and adequate living standards for the inhabitants to justify the legacy of territorial acquisitions.
Russia could withstand a new round of sanctions against a lack of resolve in Europe. However, if Biden successfully blends tangible sanctions with further credible options for their escalation, limiting the Kremlin’s access to the global financial markets and leading technologies, the uncertainty could cripple the ruble and Russia’s economy.
However, it would be a mistake to focus on measures that make ordinary people pay for Putin’s war on America. The Tzar will undoubtedly resort to a new spike in brutal repressions to suppress dissent, and the West could hardly stop him on that track. The regime’s weak spot is the oligarchs’ assets abroad. Freezing them will deal a lethal blow to Putin’s reign, sending shockwaves throughout the control and command chains in Russia’s elite.
At any rate, fasten your seatbelts; we are entering a zone of extreme turbulence in Western-Russian relations. The time of “balancers” like PM Borissov, who charms NATO and EU partners with grand talk and vague promises while delivering tangible results to Putin, is over.
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