When Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer” and said he would “pay a price”, the international media emitted a collective gasp and a chorus of warnings of a return to the Cold War. US think tanks chimed in with memories of those distant days when international relations were more clear-cut, disciplined and free of the fogginess of globalisation.
Moscow was incensed. This is not how nuclear superpowers speak to one another. Besides, Russian leaders had already strenuously denied the allegations regarding the killing of spies in British parks and the charges of tampering with the US elections – twice.
This does look like the Cold War in one respect: the tales of intelligence agencies, spies and the cloak-and-dagger world that has inspired so many espionage action films and thrillers. When we apply a more contemporary lens, one that shifts focus from the batteries of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction facing each other down from opposite ends of the planet to cyberspace, we find a new kind of warfare, one that has no rules of engagement yet and no accumulated literature in international law, treaties or even negotiations.
But Cold War talk is easier. Its sources of information are abundant and its sensationalist aspects serve the media, as well as both Biden and Putin, given the obvious domestic dimensions of the tensions.
Putin, as we know, has to contend with many domestic problems, including some high-profile ones such as Alexei Navanly who had to be treated for poisoning in Germany and, after several weeks of demonstrations in support of him, returned to Russia to lead the opposition, albeit from jail. One was reminded of how Lenin returned to Russia to lead the Communist Revolution. But on this occasion, we have an activist leading a liberal revolution to resounding applause from Western countries. Meanwhile, Biden also has a full plate.
He has to deal with the spectre of the “return of Trump” who has sounded the charge against the Biden administration, saying it can not stop immigrants, pull out from Afghanistan or take on Iran. On leaving the White House, Trump had vowed to be back to run against Biden in 2024, and instead of having to build a new Republican party for the purpose, the party has already rallied behind him as it plans for the mid-term congressional elections in 2022.
Biden is also in a race against time to prove himself the leader the US has lacked for the past four years. Not only does he want to show that Trump is not fit to run the country, he also wants to ensure that the Democrats stay the course by pursuing a sensible policy to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
What he needs is to achieve an acceptable level of recovery by mid-year, and then steer the country back to normalcy by the end of the year. Abroad, he wants to pursue rational and smart approaches to restricting the Russian role, competing with China and handling Iran through a return to a modified nuclear accord the world can live with. To these ends, Biden is prepared to use all the weapons at his disposal to preserve his popularity at home, and he was only just given a rather handy one.
Last week, the US National Intelligence Council released a declassified report on foreign attempts to influence the 2020 elections. The report sheds considerable light on how US adversaries such as Russia and Iran see US elections as a major opportunity to further their particular agendas.
No foreign entity tried to alter voter registration data, switch ballots, manipulate the vote count or otherwise tamper with the electoral process itself. Rather, according to the 15 page redacted report, various countries and political actors worked to undermine Americans’ confidence in the vote and sow social discord through targeted dissemination of false information and manipulation of voter perceptions.
The authors of the report had “high confidence” that Putin authorised the “influence activities” designed to make targeted audiences of the misinformation campaigns behave in a certain way. In the 2020 elections, the activities aimed to denigrate Biden’s candidacy and strengthen former president Trump’s chances.
The report states that a key element of Moscow’s strategy was “its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives – including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden – to US media organisations, US officials and prominent US individuals, including some close to former president Trump and his administration.”
One of the narratives had to do with “President Biden and his family’s alleged wrongdoing related to Ukraine.” The report indicates that Russia helped push the conspiracy theory, spread by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, that Biden had used his influence as vice-president under Obama to have the Ukrainian public prosecutor dismissed in order to prevent an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm in which Biden’s son Hunter had served on the board of directors.
The report contains little that is new. In fact, it seems less damning than the Mueller report which had been more assertive on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Moreover, the recently released report did not categorically prove or conclude that there was a direct relationship between Trump or his campaign workers and the Russian intelligence operatives. Nevertheless, Biden treated the report as though it contained new revelations and, therefore, as fodder for hurling charges against Putin, setting into motion a chain of mutual recriminations and threats between the two heads-of-state.
Yet both are aware that, despite the cyber tactics and stinging insults, the countries have a lot of common ground on which to work together. It is noteworthy that, amid all the heated exchanges, Ukraine only came up in the context of the conspiracy theory involving Hunter Biden. No mention was made of the Ukrainian question, which is at the very core of the so-called return to the Cold War.
Moscow and Washington know full well that they need each other. In Afghanistan, for example, neither wants Taliban’s return to power. In Syria, their cooperation and understandings serve both their interests: the US wants to pull out of Syria, Russia wants to stay, while Israel has to be extra careful as it threads its way between the two in order to strike Iranian targets there.
Both Moscow and Washington want to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran which they had both contributed to formulating, and both want to return to the nuclear arms reduction treaty between them. Washington realises that its main rival today is China, while Moscow, which had long identified its main adversary as the US, on the other side of the Pacific, is now staring at an emergent Chinese superpower right next door. In geopolitical terms, with China there, the US and Russia do not have the luxury to indulge in another Cold War.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly