Global rivals, Russia and the United States quietly seek areas of agreement

MOSCOW – It may seem like not much has changed for Russia and the United States, two old adversaries looking to compete against each other around the world.

Russian nuclear-capable missiles have been spotted moving near Ukraine, and the Kremlin has signaled the possibility of further intervention there. He tested hypersonic cruise missiles that bypass US defenses and cut all ties with the US-led NATO alliance. After a summer break, ransomware attacks emanating from Russian territory resumed and last week Microsoft unveiled a new Russian cyber surveillance campaign.

Since President Biden took office nine months ago, the United States has imposed sweeping new sanctions on Russia, continued to arm and train the Ukrainian military, and has threatened retaliatory cyber attacks against targets. Russian. The US Embassy in Moscow has virtually ceased issuing visas.

As world leaders gathered at the Group of 20 summit this weekend in Rome, Mr Biden did not even have the opportunity to speak face to face with his Russian counterpart because President Vladimir V. Putin, citing coronavirus concerns, attended the event remotely. .

Yet beneath the surface of the mess, the two global rivals are now also doing something else: talking.

The summit between Mr Biden and Mr Putin in June in Geneva sparked a series of contacts between the two countries, including three trips to Moscow by senior officials of the Biden administration since July, and further meetings with Russian officials. on neutral ground in Finland and Switzerland.

There is a serious conversation going on about arms control, the deepest in years. The White House’s senior adviser on cyber and emerging technologies, Anne Neuberger, has engaged in a series of silent virtual meetings with her Kremlin counterpart. Several weeks ago – after extensive debate within the US intelligence community over what to reveal – the US revealed the names and other details of a few hackers actively launching attacks against America.

Now, an official said, the United States is waiting to see if the information leads to arrests, a test of whether Mr. Putin was serious when he said he would facilitate crackdown on ransomware and other cybercrime.

Officials from both countries say the wave of talks has so far yielded little substance, but is helping to prevent Russian-American tensions from spiraling out of control.

A senior administration official said the United States was “very clear-headed” about the intentions of Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, but believes they can work together on issues such as arms control. The official noted that Russia had aligned closely with the United States to restore the Iran nuclear deal and, to a lesser extent, to deal with North Korea, but acknowledged that there were many more areas where the Russians are “trying to stop the work.”

Mr. Biden’s measured approach has been praised by the Russian foreign policy establishment, which views increased White House engagement as a sign that America is new to making deals.

“Biden understands the importance of a sober approach,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Moscow foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin. “The most important thing Biden understands is that he won’t change Russia. Russia is the way it is.

For the White House, the talks are a way of trying to avoid geopolitical surprises that could derail Mr. Biden’s priorities – competition with China and a national agenda facing a myriad of challenges. For Mr Putin, talks with the richest and most powerful nation in the world are a way to show Russia’s global influence – and to boost its national image as a guarantor of stability.

“What the Russians hate more than anything else should be ignored,” said Fiona Hill, who was Russia’s leading expert on President Donald J. Trump’s National Security Council, before testifying against him during his talks. first impeachment hearings. “Because they want to be a major player on stage, and if we don’t pay them that much attention, they’re going to find ways to get our attention.”

For the United States, however, outreach is fraught with risk, exposing the Biden administration to criticism that it is too willing to engage with a Putin-led Russia that continues to undermine American interests and suppress democracy. dissent.

EU officials fear Russia is playing hard amid the region’s energy crisis, awaiting approval of a new pipeline before delivering more gas. New images, posted to social media on Friday, showed Russian missiles and other weapons moving near Ukraine, sparking speculation about the possibility of further Russian action against the country.

In the United States, it is the destructive nature of the Russian cybercampaign that particularly worries those responsible. Microsoft’s disclosure of a new campaign to gain access to its cloud services and infiltrate thousands of networks of US governments, businesses and think tanks made it clear that Russia was ignoring the sanctions Mr Biden imposed after the Solar Winds hack in January.

But it also represented what now looks like a lasting shift in Russian tactics, according to Dmitri Alperovich, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator research group. He noted that the decision to undermine US cyberspace infrastructure, rather than simply hack into individual corporate or federal targets, was “a tactical change of direction, not a one-time operation.”

Russia has already found ways to use Mr. Biden’s desire for what the White House calls a more “stable and predictable” relationship to demand concessions from Washington.

When Victoria Nuland, a senior State Department official, recently sought to travel to Moscow for Kremlin talks, the Russian government did not immediately agree. Considered in Moscow to be one of Washington’s most influential Russian hawks, Ms. Nuland was on a blacklist of people banned from entering the country.

But the Russians offered a deal. If Washington approved a visa for a senior Russian diplomat who had not been able to enter the United States since 2019, then Ms. Nuland could come to Moscow. The Biden administration accepted the offer.

Ms. Nuland’s conversations in Moscow have been described as far-reaching, but in the wave of talks between the United States and Russia, there are clearly areas the Kremlin does not want to discuss: the suppression of dissent by Russia and the treatment of jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny have gone largely unanswered, despite Biden’s expressed disapproval of it this year.

While Mr Biden will not see Mr Putin in person at the Group of 20 summit in Rome or the climate summit in Glasgow, Dmitry S. Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, said in October that another meeting this year “in one format or another” between the two presidents was “quite realistic”.

“Biden has been very successful in waving to Russia,” said Kadri Liik, Russia specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “What Russia wants is the great power’s privilege to break the rules. But for that you need rules to be there. And whether we like it or not, the United States is still there. an important player among global legislators. ”

The most notable discussions between Russian and American officials have focused on what both call “strategic stability” – a phrase that encompasses traditional arms control and fears that new technologies, including the use of artificial intelligence to control weapon systems, can lead to war accidents or reduce the decision-making time of leaders to avoid conflicts. Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led a delegation on the issues, and US officials describe them as a “bright spot” in the relationship.

Working groups have been set up, including one that will discuss “new weapons” like Russia’s Poseidon, an autonomous nuclear torpedo.

While Pentagon officials say China’s nuclear modernization is their main long-term threat, Russia remains the immediate challenge. “Russia is still the most imminent threat, simply because it has deployed 1,550 nuclear weapons,” General John E. Hyten, who will retire in a few weeks as vice chairman of the United States, told reporters on Thursday. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In other contacts, John F. Kerry, Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, spent four days in Moscow in July. And Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran, held talks in Moscow in September.

Aleksei Overchuk, a Russian Deputy Prime Minister, met with Ms Sherman and Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national security adviser – talks Mr Overchuk described as “very good and honest” in comments to Russian media .

Mr. Putin, attentive to the subtleties of diplomatic messages after more than 20 years in power, welcomes such gestures of respect. Analysts noted that he also recently sent his own signal: Asked by an Iranian guest at a conference in October whether Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan heralded a decline in American power, Mr. Putin countered praising Mr. Biden’s decision and rejecting the idea that the chaotic start would have a long-term effect on America’s image.

“Time will pass and everything will fall into place, without leading to cardinal changes,” Putin said. “The attractiveness of the country does not depend on this, but on its economic and military power.

Anton Troianovsky brought back from Moscow, and David E. Sanger from Washington.

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