With the full-scale media meltdown of 2018’s Helsinki summit at the top of everyone’s minds, the highly anticipated first meeting between US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin has finally come and gone. Just as in 2018, commentators scrambled to overanalyze banalities and play body language expert, only this time in the opposite direction from three years ago, heaping praise on Biden for supposedly dominating Putin and reclaiming America’s collective, metaphorical masculinity. America is, after all, back.
One of Biden’s zingers during his post-summit presser was particularly interesting. After candidly admitting his staff regularly decide for him in advance which reporters to take questions from (“as usual, folks, they gave me a list of the people I’m going to call on”), Biden took his first question, the beginning of a series of demands from press corps hawks to explain if he was being aggressive enough, and whether he could go further.
Asked what he had “threatened” Putin with given the Kremlin’s prior election meddling and this year’s Russian-attributed SolarWinds hack, Biden reminded the reporter that he had already retaliated against those very things just two months ago, before warning Putin the global esteem he covets will be undermined by such behavior:
How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries, and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engaged in activities that he is engaged in? It diminishes the standing of a country that is desperately trying to make sure it maintains its standing as a major world power.
Of course, Biden here was parrying with a classic bit of political pandering. But the fact that this kind of talk — a type of liberal hawkishness grounded in rose-tinted memories of US foreign policy — has such purchase in influential circles like this is telling in itself.
Left-wing critics of the Russiagate madness were often accused of covering for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and other provocations through “whataboutism.” But the real issue was the need for the subject to be put in context. As they pointed out over and over again — indeed, as we teach children — you tend to lose your moral high ground when you criticize someone for doing to you something you yourself do to others all the time, however wrong and objectionable it might be.
There’s a virtual library of books to read if you want all the scandalous details of Washington interference in other countries’ elections under bow-tied psychopaths like Allen Dulles. Here’s the short version: according to Hong Kong University international relations specialist Dov Levin, the US government has done this kind of meddling more than eighty times from 1946–2000, in almost every part of the world you can think of, from the Middle East (Israel, Lebanon, Iran) and East Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Japan), to Europe (Greece, Italy, West Germany) and Latin America (think of a country and it’s probably on the list).
That list isn’t exhaustive, mind you. It doesn’t include the time in Mongolia, for instance, when the late Sen. John McCain and a group of Republican operatives got taxpayer funding to oust the country’s ruling, nominally communist party with a collection of even more rabid free-marketeers, who soon opened the mineral rich country up to foreign businesses. That happened in 1996.
And because it stops in 2000, it doesn’t feature any of the more recent marquee cases of electoral meddling from this millennium, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Bolivia and Brazil. Nor does it count the US-backed coups that went beyond merely putting a thumb on the scale for one party or candidate and simply abolished democracy altogether, such as in Chile and Iran. And it also leaves out the international campaigns of terror against the political left supported or facilitated by Washington in at least twenty-two countries.
One of the elections it does feature is, of course, the US government’s fateful intervention on the side of Boris Yeltsin in Russia’s presidential elections, also in 1996, ensuring the continuing plunder of the Russian economy and leading directly to the Putin regime. Meanwhile, Putin’s 2016 interference is widely understood to have been a response to Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Russia at the start of the 2010s.
Those are still going on by the way. Just a few weeks ago, a pair of Russian pranksters fooled the leadership of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — Washington’s arm for funding political opposition in other countries (including Mongolia twenty-five years ago) — into admitting on camera that they “support many, many groups” and “have a very, very active program throughout” Russia, with an eye on the country’s legislative elections this September. Later, another NED official informed viewers that “we have a very ample program in Russia” that is “very deep and it’s very broad,” and “goes even down to the grass roots in the provinces.”
In standard media coverage of today’s strained US-Russia relations, and in the typical rhetoric of US politicians like Biden, all of this is simply left out. And it’s easy to see why: Russia’s meddling in US elections, whether energetic, as in 2016, or piddling, as in 2020, doesn’t really work as the world-historical moral outrage or near-atrocity the establishment wants people to view it as when you understand it’s a thing powerful countries do to each other quite frequently — and a thing the US government in particular does all the time, including repeatedly in Russia itself.
When such actions are understood as part of a familiar game of geopolitical tit for tat, the case for gargantuan military budgets and foreign wars that line the pockets of defense contractors loses some of its juice.
Something Actually Good
Nonetheless, Biden’s parry of the question points to one of the few pleasantly surprising developments of the Biden administration so far: the possible start of a shift to more constructive, diplomatic relationship with Russia.
This website has featured a great deal of criticism of Biden, and for good reason: his presidency has been fairly mediocre on the domestic front, and a mixed bag on foreign policy, carrying on more of the Trump program than his party hopes most of their voters realize. But despite some early saber-rattling and preening for the audience at home, Biden is showing a willingness to tamp down tensions between the two nuclear powers, and try and bring relations back to at least an Obama-era level of normalcy, before the four years of threats, hysteria, and provocations under Trump.
Biden spent much of his presser trying to turn down the temperature. He made clear that the US-Russia relationship needed to be “stable and predictable,” based on cooperation where possible, and stressed the largely positive and constructive nature of his meeting with Putin, whom he had earlier called a “worthy adversary.”
“I don’t think he’s looking for a Cold War with the United States,” he insisted. He acknowledged Putin’s concerns (“He still, I believe, is concerned about being, quote, ‘encircled.’ He still is concerned that we, in fact, are looking to take him down, et cetera.”) Were there any threats issued? “No, no, no,” Biden said.
This was paired with other, more conciliatory actions. The Ukrainian president was disappointed with Biden’s demurral on his country’s admittance to NATO — which Russia sees as a red line — and with Biden’s personal rejection of his claim that the rest of NATO had given it the green light. Biden reportedly cancelled a package of military aid to the country and overruled his own state department to waive sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, pissing of both Democratic and Republican war hawks in Congress in the process.
It’s hard to overstate how vitally important this all is to Russia — which was responsible for 26 percent of the world’s natural gas exports in 2019, and for now sends 40 percent of its European-bound gas through Ukraine — and how inconvenient it is for NATO leadership, which views Russia’s gas exports to Europe as a vehicle to pry apart the military alliance and Europe more broadly. The fact that he was reportedly driven by the concerns of Western European powers in some of these decisions makes it no less significant.
Meanwhile, the two agreed at the summit to restore their respective ambassadors and, perhaps most importantly, to restart nuclear talks and work toward further arms control. Other than climate change, this is arguably the most pressing issue between the two countries, which together account for the vast majority of the world’s nuclear stockpile.
With so many variables in the mix, we can’t say whether this will actually lead to a thawing of the tensions that the Trump administration — egged on by Democrats — dangerously escalated between the two countries. A Democrat has come into office before trying to reset the US-Russia relationship and failed, and Biden was vice president then. And much of the US political establishment remains united in its ardor for conflict with Russia. But these are nonetheless positive signs.
What’s funny is if you read most mainstream coverage, you wouldn’t know Biden’s taken a less aggressive approach to Russia than Trump, who vehemently opposed Nord Stream 2 and sent lethal aid to Ukraine for the first time. Biden has talked tough on Russia, but so far governed like a dove, all while having the media portray him as especially aggressive toward Putin. For Trump, it was vice versa on all three counts.
Improbably, Biden has become, for once, a lonely voice of reason in this nationalistic and hawkish political atmosphere that’s prevailed since 2016. We’ll see if it lasts. In the meantime, whether it comes to cyberattacks, election interference, or anything else, let’s hope we can put the actions of US adversaries into perspective, and not succumb to the “hyperbolic atmosphere” Biden warned about in Geneva.