Some Progress Made in Biden-Putin Talks, But Relations Remain Strained
At a moment when officials in Russia and the United States correctly assert that relations between them are at the “lowest level” in years, any change immediately attracts scrutiny and speculation. Such was the case following the phone call on July 9 between Presidents Putin and Biden, the first substantive follow-up to their June 16 summit in Geneva. Reports on the call, said to have been between three-and-a-half and four hours long, have been sketchy, but there is motion on at least two topics taken up by the two.
First, the U.S. administration reports that Joe Biden confronted his Russian counterpart with a demand that he act against ransomware attacks against corporations which U.S. intelligence officials believe are coming from criminal operations inside Russia. Biden told the press that he “made it very clear to him that –that the United States expects, when a ransomware operation is coming from his soil, even though it’s not…sponsored by the state, we expect them to act if we give them enough information….” Some press report this was part of a longer discussion, with Putin agreeing that he will investigate the charges once he receives enough information, but stating there is no evidence that the criminal activities originate in Russia.
A joint committee has been established to investigate these attacks, and will hold its first meeting on July 16. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged that the intelligence community is not sure that attacks have their origin in Russia. President Biden said of the discussion that “it went well, I’m optimistic.”
The second major topic in their talk was Syria, about which little information emerged. However, following their call, a stalemate in the UN Security Council over distribution of humanitarian aid to Syria was broken, when the U.S. changed its position(cf. below). There is some speculation that talks could begin soon between the Syrian government and the U.S.-backed Kurds, which could lead to the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops in Syria.
At the same time as these small steps forward occurred, Washington imposed more sanctions from the U.S. against Russia continued, with six Russian companies sanctioned over allegations they attempted to procure electronic components “likely” for Russian military programs. The use of the word “likely” implies, as usual, that no hard evidence to back the charge has been found.
And even though NATO’s Sea Breeze naval war games in the Black Sea ended, the Russians warned the Americans to cease such maneuvers, as they are “provocations” which undermine security. Kiev is presenting the participation of the Ukrainian navy as an indication that they are moving toward inclusion in NATO. The Russian government insists that the offer of membership to Ukraine would cross a clear “red line” that Russia has drawn.