Bombast From Washington: Joe Biden’s Russia Sanctions

Thursday, shortly after the White House issued its four-page Fact Sheet on the sanctions about to be imposed on Russia (“Imposing Costs for Harmful Foreign Activities by the Russian Government”), I was invited by RT International in Moscow to be a “first responder” and provide an analytical comment at the top of their 16.00 news hour program.

I did this with considerable pleasure since before we went on air I was tossed an opening question that played into my game perfectly:

“The new sanctions come despite Washington saying it wants a ‘stable relationship’ with Russia…Are sanctions really a good tool to reach such a goal?”

As I pointed out, the question assumes that ‘stable relationship’ means a ‘good’ relationship and that is a fallacy. The American notion of a ‘stable relationship’ is one that they control unilaterally.

Question two was another soft ball pitch:

“Just days ago Joe Biden called Russian president Vladimir Putin – offering him a personal meeting. Why are we seeing such a swing in sentiment now?

Here I must admit that my first thoughts which I delivered on air were wrong. I saw the imposition of sanctions now as indicative of warfare within the Biden Administration between doves and hawks.  No, the situation is more complicated as I will try to explain here..

Yes, one might conclude there is chaos in Washington decision making, with the advocates of caution in dealing with Russia, who no doubt urged upon the American President an outreach to Russia and a summit being undercut by the authors of the sanctions –the enemies of Russia camp in the State Department, where Victoria Nuland, once again calls the shots as Under Secretary for Policy, and the Treasury working group on Russia sanctions which have stayed in place since before the Trump administration was an active contributor of content.

Were the sanctions intended to sabotage the call for a summit meeting? As a practical matter the sanctions will at a minimum postpone the setting of any date for a summit, and quite possibly end in the cancellation of any meeting.  But I doubt this was the intent of the sanctions’ sponsors or of Biden himself. Rather it is a demonstration of the utterly ignorant and self-focused way that U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle propose to deal with the world.

US policy is based on scenarios written by political scientists with the intellectual capacity and life experience of college sophomores. Victoria Nuland, is an outstanding case. In a recently issued article deconstructing the writings of Nuland and her Neocon ideologist husband Robert Kagan, my Canadian colleague Patrick Armstrong rightly compared these highly dangerous fools in high places with the idiot savants described by Jonathan Swift in the chapter on Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels.

The introduction of new and seemingly tough sanctions just after President Putin was invited to a summit meeting was surely intended to serve a specific US domestic purpose, namely to show that, unlike Donald Trump, Joe Biden would meet with Vladimir Putin “from a position of strength,” the only negotiating stance that America’s anti-Russian political class accepts as legitimate.

Let us define this “position of strength” notion in very contemporary and instantly understandable words: it means the US knee on the neck of a supine Russia. “I can’t breathe” is the only response that these militants want to hear from the Russians before they sit down and talk about the way forward in mutual relations.

This is precisely what Russia under Vladimir Putin resists tooth and nail, saying that Russia will negotiate only under conditions of mutual respect and equal treatment of national interests.

Close inspection of the sanctions reveals that there is nothing in them to elicit an “I can’t breathe” response. An article on the front page of today’s Financial Times tells us all we need to know about the practical effect of the single most impressive punishment to be applied to Russia, the prohibition on US financial institutions participating in primary auctions of Russian state ruble denominated bonds: “Western investors brush off US bond sanctions on Russia.”  Indeed, the bonds will now be sold to Russian state banks like VTB who will then resell them to the very same Western banks on the secondary market, which is not sanctioned and which investors do not expect to be sanctioned in future now that the Biden bag of tricks has been emptied and all the listed malicious doings of Russia have been punished. Other notable sanctions such as the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats will surely be followed by the expulsion of 10 or more American diplomats by the Russians. End of story.

All of the other verbiage in the Presidential “Fact Sheet” and in particular the litany of accusations of wrongdoing in many different areas can only serve to vilify Russia and spoil the atmosphere.

The sanctions were bombast, which Google Search defines as “high-sounding language with little meaning, used to impress people.”  The ‘free world’ and ‘democratic values’ defenders who pack the Biden administration are big talkers and cowardly actors.

The Russians understand that very well, even if it eludes nearly all American commentators.  The Russians point to the decision taken by the US on Tuesday NOT to send its two warships into the Black Sea, as had been previously announced.  Instead the vessels turned back before entering the Dardanelles and were sent to Cyprus to do some unspecified repair work.

The decision on the warships, whose mission in the Black Sea could only be described as highly provocative, came at the same time that Biden issued his outreach to Putin for a summit. There can be little doubt that both measures were taken under advice of the Pentagon who have the clearest and least ideologically compromised understanding of Russian power and intentions among anyone in the US capital. They knew that with 80,000 troops on the ground at the Ukrainian border versus the 40,000 troops that the US is mobilizing along the Western frontiers of Russia to conduct its pending military exercises, the outcome of any military confrontation with Mr. Putin in coming days would be devastating for the US military. They knew that the Russians could and would, if necessary, neutralize the two US Navy vessels in a matter of minutes by electronic warfare weaponry.

What are the lessons to be learned from this week’s otherwise confusing developments in U.S.-Russian relations?

First, that the political, meaning diplomatic, channels between the countries are virtually useless at present. On the US side they are manned by determined fools, among whom I include our brilliantly dressed and superficially eloquent Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. In response to those who claim, rightly, that Blinken is highly intelligent, I say “stupid is as stupid does” and in his exercise of office, particularly in his recent conduct with a top-level Chinese delegation, Blinken showed himself to be dumb as they come. His subordinates are no better.

If Russia were to follow its interests to the logical conclusion, they would now recall the rest of their staff at their Washington Embassy and order the US embassy in Moscow to shut down. Daily communications between Russian General Gerasimov and his counterparts in the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington are the best way to keep the peace. These chaps alone can both walk and chew gum. These chaps alone understand who is who and what is what in projection of military force.

Second, there is absolutely no sense to convene a U.S.-Russia summit at present or in the foreseeable future. It will resolve nothing.

Third, the question of Ukraine has willy-nilly become the single biggest issue in U.S.-Russian relations. It may well be that it can be solved only by force of arms, given the obtuseness of both American political elites and of Ukrainian President Zelenski’s entourage. They still push for recapture of the Crimea. They still push for Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Both ambitions are inimical to Russian national security and are sufficient reason for Russia to go to war.

Post Script –

The Russian counter measures have now been announced and they appear to be even more severe than what Biden imposed on them. While they have not ordered the US Embassy to close, they have done far more than expel a matching number of American diplomats. They have revoked a 1992 agreement with the United States on free movement of their diplomats around the Russian Federation; they will now be limited to 25 miles, as in the days of the Soviet Union. They are now prohibiting the US diplomatic missions to hire Russians or third country nationals to work for them; this will immediately hobble the activities of the diplomatic missions in every dimension.

At the same time, the Russians are ordering the closing of US Government sponsored NGOs and foundations, which they say are conducting subversive activities on Russian soil, read “meddling.” And they have issued a list of former and present US government officials who will be barred entry to the RF. These include the US Attorney General, the heads of US intelligence agencies and notorious Russia-bashers Susan Rice and John Bolton. Moreover, they have publicly recommended that the US ambassador to Russia go home for extended consultations, effectively decapitating the embassy and winding down its work.

The very severity of the Russian response suggests to me that they have cleared the decks for a possible summit on equal footing. Furthermore,to avoid any confusion in Washington about negotiations proceeding from a “position of strength” the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced today the transfer of Army units from the Northern Caucasus to Crimea for very extensive military training exercises, further expanding the Russian military pressure on Ukraine and its backers in Washington.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021