Putin's desire for Biden photo-op might trump sanctions rage

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President Joe Biden’s imposition of new sanctions on Russia could intensify tensions with Moscow just as Russian military forces amass on Ukraine’s border, but the signals from Washington raise the stakes of any aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It might go both ways: It might increase tensions militarily or decrease,” said a Baltic official, who assessed U.S.-Russia relations on condition of anonymity. “Putin is very unpredictable, so it’s difficult to say. … In the short term, rhetoric and military tensions might increase.”

Biden unveiled an executive order that authorizes punishments for Russian interference in American elections as well as a recent major cyberattack against American companies, measures initiated just two days after a phone call with Putin.

“The new executive order is expansive; it allows the U.S. government to target anyone operating in any sector of the Russia economy,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Eric Lorber, who leads the think tank’s Center on Economic and Financial Power, said Thursday. That puts U.S. companies operating in Russia on notice that their customers and counterparties in transactions could be sanctioned at any time and will likely make U.S. companies think twice about conducting business in Russia.

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Biden proposed to arrange a summit with the Kremlin chief during that conversation, so the ensuing sanctions could force Putin into an uncomfortable choice between preserving his chance to meet Biden or mounting an effective retaliation against the U.S. rebukes.

“Our response is inevitable, it will be worked out,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Thursday, per state media. “I think that right now, the U.S. ambassador to Russia is at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of our country. I wouldn’t have said this before, but now I can say this: This won’t be a pleasant meeting for him.”

Such truculent rhetoric was expected by Western officials and observers, some of whom have been uneasy about whether Putin will escalate the conflict in Ukraine. “Expect Russian retaliation, including expelling U.S. diplomats, counter-sanctions, and potentially more aggressive moves against Ukraine,” Lorber added in his written analysis.

Yet some analysts suspect that Putin will limit his team to sound and fury, signifying nothing so grave because they perceive Putin as eager to have a prestigious summit with Biden. “If Putin does too much in Ukraine, then there won’t be a summit, and that will be a cost to Putin,” the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund said. “This was a big prize for Putin to get, but if he misbehaves, he won’t get that. I thought this was very clever by Biden.”

The Russian military buildup around Ukraine was high on the agenda at NATO headquarters this week, where the top diplomats and defense leaders of the alliance huddled to discuss an array of threats and alliance issues. U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged Wednesday that they didn’t know the Kremlin’s motivation for the troublesome military buildup, but some observers suspect that Putin’s saber-rattling is an elaborate exercise of attention-seeking, one designed more to burnish his reputation at home as an influential leader rather than a portent of war.

“He wants probably to talk with Biden because he really wants to be seen as one of those world leaders,” the Baltic official said. “He really wants to sit with the American president and [be seen] talking about global affairs. And for that, he needs kind of a big escalation, military escalation, where he can be a kind of a person where you can sit down by the same table and discuss.”

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That desire could prove effective at restraining Putin’s more aggressive impulses over the next several months, according to Aslund, because the Kremlin wants Putin’s allies to have a strong showing in Russia’s legislative elections in the fall of 2021.

“Putin really wants this summit,” Aslund said. “He has Duma elections in September. He needs to show that he is a big guy. And if he does something stupid in Ukraine, then he won’t have a summit.”