Why now? Biden, Putin and the Collapse of European Diplomacy

The Cold War ended three decades ago and the USSR no longer exists. Eastern Europe is free and now considered an integral part of the West. Post-communist Russia is certainly not a model for democracy, but it does not threaten US interests as it once used to do. So why did the American new president, in his first interview in 2021, feel the need to say Putin is a murderer? Considering the current situation, it might be because the traditional battleground of geopolitical superpowers – mainland Europe – is now focusing on gathering as many vaccines as it can, no matter where they come from. Such a big shock for Uncle Joe’s monopoly!

The rest, including allegations of meddling, is just contour. Interference should not come as a surprise either: the US has tried to meddle with Russian elections ever since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. For example,  Yeltsin would not have been re-elected without the help of Clinton in 1996. And Putin himself, four years later, was the by-product of that same consensus. This is history. And Biden should consider it before saying Putin will pay for his “sins”: no true sin and no single evil exist in realpolitik. Flipped the coin, the US would have the same amount of reasons to be held accountable for unrequested intervention and collateral damages all around the world.

In this context, it is not the first time that the current American administration has pointed at some big foreign personalities with dubious or questionable past. The personal attack on the Russian president follows the one directed at Saudi Arabia’s Prince Salman, accused of having taken part in the conspiracy that led to the killing of Khashoggi. Change in US foreign policy from Trump presidency could not have been more marked. In fact, Biden’s predecessor made the search for stability through unconditional respect of national sovereignty the compass of his international actions, recognizing equal legitimacy to any interlocutor, including questionable figures such as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

However, while one can negotiate with Pyongyang, one cannot sit at the negotiating table with a counterpart who has been publicly branded a criminal. Dialogue with Russia can therefore be considered compromised even before it has begun, to the detriment of international security. Yet, it is unlikely for new sanctions to cause Putin to be overthrown or publicly condemned overnight. Biden’s harshness should be better envisioned as a worrying signal to Europeans, a warning that they will soon have to choose between Russia, China and the US patronage of their security. Now that the latter revolves around vaccine supplies, we have to ask ourselves whether we need a Russia in chaos or pushed into the arms of China, if not even politically subjugated to Beijing.

Do we really need instability on the eastern and southern borders of the EU at a time when the need to repair the disasters induced by the pandemic should lead to caution? Both the short and long answer are no: if the underlying message is “America is back” but under severe conditions, which is total geopolitical abnegation, European chancelleries must not privilege a contender over the other, not for the sake of their own interests. Confirmed by the relevance assumed by the recent meeting of the QUAD, the decision to produce a billion anti-Covid-19 vaccines under US Patent vials in India not to be distributed in the EU and US pressure on North Stream 2, Washington has come back to scapegoating its internal chaos on its usual foreign policy “frenemies”.

Pushing Russia towards China while pressuring Germany and attracting new allies in the South Chinese Sea, is a multidimensional move that aims at re-acquiring international respect, marking a sudden change from Trump’s only achievements, and dividing once again world politics into black and white tones: Europe is either with or without the US. However, gravitating again towards the US is no more as convenient as it used to be for European countries. The latter would rather keep their options open – no matter the moral costs – and count on diversifying their alliances. In a time in which English-speaking countries are forming a new pole by creating the Commonwealth 2.0 in contrast as with Russia and China as with the EU itself, the EU cannot let the Americans decide who its economic partners are if it wishes to reanimate market demand and control social unrest, that same confusion that vaccine monopoly has only contributed to fuel.

Luca Giulini