How the United States is Confronting the Kremlin
President Joe Biden’s answer in an interview with ABC News as to the question of whether he considers Russian President Vladimir Putin to be a murderer raised a number of questions. Biden’s answer likely sunk any chance at normalizing U.S.-Russian relations for the remainder of Biden’s term(s) in office. However, even if Biden ignored the question, relations with Russia would have likely remained tense and near historic lows.
Already in place or recently announced U.S. sanctions targeting Russians and Russian interests represent a consistent and coordinated policy pursued by all levels of the U.S. government. The approach the Biden administration is taking towards sanctioning Russia differs significantly from the previous Trump administration.
For the first time, sanctions are being imposed not only on individuals and businesses but also on technologies as a whole. The United States not only completely bans the export of weapons, defense technologies, and services to Russia, but it also imposed a ban on the export of any goods and technologies that are important to U.S. national security.
Previously, only enterprises that were part of the Russian military-industrial complex were subject to U.S. sanctions. If a company did not officially have ties to the state, documentation of such ties was required before it could be included on the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) sanctions list. Of course, even in the case of obvious ties between commercial and military enterprises within Russia, it was not so easy to find such evidence from abroad. Now the position of the United States is crystal clear – technologies, in principle, should not end up in Russia regardless of how guilty an individual company is and whether this guilt can be proven.
This also includes a ban on the provision of loans to Russia by financial institutions, including the U.S. Export-Import Bank. This is a very serious measure affecting the entire spectrum of financial and trading activities in Russia.
Another area where the United States is targeting Russia would be in cyberspace. The New York Times reports that the United States intends to carry out a series of cyberattacks against Russia in the coming weeks in response to the hacking of the networks of American critical infrastructure. According to U.S. officials, Russian hackers quietly gained access to critical infrastructure in 2020.
Last year, Politico published an article detailing the specifics of Russian interference in the 2020 election. After listing the forms and methods of foreign interference, analysts concluded that “The scale, scope and, most importantly, the impact of domestic disinformation is far greater than any foreign government could do to the United States.” However, while creating discord and division, ultimately the Kremlin’s preferred candidate did not win in November.
A report from the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) published in early March came to the following conclusion: foreign sources of disinformation did not have much influence on the 2020 election. This conclusion was then voiced for the third time, in a report by the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence that described foreign interference in the 2020 election. The report concluded that the efforts by foreign actors did not affect the November election. However, this did not stop the announcement of retaliatory measures and the imposition of new sanctions. In short, the Biden administration has made it clear that any actions by Moscow, regardless of their effectiveness, will be severely punished.
For many observers of international relations, Joe Biden’s affirmative answer that Putin personally has blood on his hands has become an extremely important symbol. The United States has finally decided to call a spade a spade, and a veiled demand for the rest of the world to pick a side. At the same time, Biden’s “yes” became a powerful humiliation for Putin personally, as it was quite noticeable from the reaction of the Kremlin of how much it bothered him.
The question of whether symbolic gestures in politics are necessary is rather complicated. As mentioned above, the United States immediately shifted course toward a tougher line on Russia, using approaches that were sidelined by the Trump administration. This policy was as effective as it was cold-blooded. However, a blow to Putin’s pride broke this equilibrium, and may well provoke an aggressive response. Obviously, the targets of its recourse, as usual, may be those that are weaker and that could be easily reached from Russia.
The first hot spot may be Donbass, where tensions have been threatening to escalate into serious military clashes for a couple of months. Russian media is actively discussing the possibility of openly stationing the Russian military in Donbass, accusing Kyiv of preparing a large-scale offensive, and the head of the self-proclaimed “DPR” Denis Pushilin, bluntly stated that his goal is to seize the entire territory of Donetsk.
The second hot spot could be Crimea and the Black Sea. Paul Zalaki, a former CIA officer, notes that NATO is currently trying to increase its presence there. Against this background, cooperation between Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine in the Black Sea basin serves the goal of holding Russia back from threatening the Black Sea. It is in this area that some fear possible clashes.
When this strategy was adopted, the Voyennoe Obozrenie website, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, reported that “the Russian Armed Forces General Staff is preparing for possible provocations by the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Crimean direction and in the Donbas.”
Akhtem Chiygoz, a Ukrainian politician, believes that Moscow is trying to raise the stakes in order to send a signal to the Biden administration. However, now, amid emotions and resentments, this game of chicken may go beyond the traditional bluff and push the Russian authorities to take extremely ill-conceived steps. Another victim, which will undoubtedly be scapegoated by the Kremlin for Biden’s words, is the Russian opposition, which is already being persecuted. Be that as it may, now we need to be prepared for the most unexpected turns of events, and we should not underestimate the danger, especially near Russia’s borders.
Kseniya Kirillova is an investigative journalist and analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, the mechanism of action of Russian propaganda, 'soft power,' 'active measures,' and foreign policy. She is the author of several hundred articles, including research on Russian propaganda and soft power for the Integrity Initiative project at the British Institute for Statecraft, Kyiv Post, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and more. While living in Russia, she worked as a journalist at Ural Worker between 2008 and 2010 and at the Ural branch of Novaya Gazeta from 2011 to 2013.