Controlled Escalation:

On 16 April, Moscow announced a series of measures including the expulsion of senior US officials and a ban on their entry into Russia. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also revealed that his country had advised the US ambassador there to leave for "serious consultations." This most recent Russian step comes in response to an array of sanctions announced by the United States on 15 April, including the expulsion of ten Russian diplomats.

Motives for Escalation

There are several motives leading to this recent escalation between the United States and Russia, which can be outlined as follows:

1. Biden’s efforts to honor his election pledges. President Biden has repeatedly said that, unlike former President Trump, he will adopt firm policies towards Russia to show that the policy of lenience toward Moscow is over. This is particularly true with respect to cyberattacks, in which the US administration asserts Russia is involved, as well as the allegations of Russian interference in US elections. US intelligence agencies have indicated that President Putin authorized interference in the 2020 US presidential elections in order to minimize Biden’s chances of victory by promoting misleading defamatory allegations against him.

The current tensions can therefore be understood as an attempt by President Biden to demonstrate resolve towards Russia while fulfilling his campaign promises, in which he repeatedly emphasized that he would raise the costs Russia would pay as a result of its policies, and that the United States would act firmly in the defense of its national interests.

2. Conflict over democracy and human rights. Issues related to democracy and human rights, and how they are viewed, represent one of the most prominent points of contention between the two sides. Prominent issues include the poisoning of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny and the recent protests in Russia, which were severely criticized by Biden in his first speech on 4 February 2021, in which he said that Navalny’s arrest by the Russian authorities was a priority of US foreign policy, arguing that he had exposed corruption in Russia and should be released. Likewise, Biden said that human rights should be respected and political gatherings in Russia should not be suppressed, and that these matters were a source of concern for the international community. On 2 March 2021, Washington also announced the imposition of sanctions against seven Russian officials and 14 entities connected to the production of chemicals, following allegations of their involvement in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

3. Biden’s sharp criticism of Putin’s policies. The first diplomatic crisis with Russia began scarcely two months after Biden ascended to the presidency, after Biden’s statement that he believed his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was a killer, and would pay what Biden described as "a price" for his actions. The comments led Russia to recall their ambassador to the United States for consultation. In response to Biden’s comments, Putin said that, "The killer is the one who describes the other as that."

Manifestations of Tension

There have recently been many manifestations of the tension between Washington and Moscow, which can be outlined as follows:

1. The imposition of broad US sanctions against Moscow. On 15 April, the White House announced that the United States was imposing sanctions on Russia in response to allegations of Russian involvement in cyberattacks and other hostile acts against Washington, including inference in the US presidential elections. According to the statement, the measures aimed to deter what were described as "Russia’s harmful foreign activities." The sanctions target dozens of Russian entities and a large number of Russian officials and diplomats.

The sanctions also target sixteen individual Russians and sixteen entities suspected of interference in the 2020 US presidential elections and various other hostile acts. The measures include the expulsion of ten Russian diplomats, among them people believed to be spies in the United States, as well as a ban on US financial institutions buying bonds valued in the Russian ruble, which comes into force on 14 June 2021.

According to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the new array of sanctions will work to reduce the resources Russia can devote to undertake similar malicious acts. He added, "These actions are intended to hold Russia to account for its reckless actions. We will act firmly in response to Russian actions that cause harm to us or our allies and partners. Where possible, the United States will also seek opportunities for cooperation with Russia, with the goal of building a more stable and predictable relationship consistent with U.S. interests."

2. Russian expulsion of several American diplomats. Moscow, through the Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, warned the United States against imposing sanctions on the country, arguing that the United States bears full responsibility for whatever happens in their relations with Russia. The move comes as the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it would expel ten US diplomats to mirror the US action, as well as placing eight US officials on the Russian sanctions list.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed that his country has advised the US ambassador to leave, adding that Russia may demand that Washington reduce the number of staff at its diplomatic missions to 300 people. Lavrov added that Moscow will suspend the activity of US non-profit organizations and funds in Russia, which he described as interfering in Russian internal affairs. These actions demonstrate that Russia is capable of taking damaging measures against US business, but that they will remain under consideration.

3. Rising tensions around the Ukrainian issue. The exchange of sanctions between the United States and Russia comes at the same time as a major escalation of the situation in Ukraine. In the wake of the mobilization of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Kiev, the Ukrainian president called, on Friday 16 April, for his country to be admitted to NATO, a step which Moscow vehemently opposes. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have escalated seriously in recent weeks, as the latter suspects Moscow of searching for an excuse to invade their territory. On the other hand, Moscow suspects Kiev of preparing for an attack against Russian-financed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

It is worth mentioning that the tensions between Moscow and Kiev have cast their shadow over relations between Russia and NATO. The Kremlin emphasized earlier in April that the presence of US troops in Ukraine would increase tensions and force Russia into taking additional measures to ensure its safety. Meanwhile, the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the areas bordering Ukraine.

4. The deployment of the Russian military in the Black Sea. Continuing the escalation, on Saturday 17 April Russia sent fifteen warships to perform maneuvers in the Black Sea, while the Russian authorities confirmed that they would be suspending movement of military or other official ships through territorial waters belonging to the Russian Federation for a period beginning at 9 p.m. on 24 April until 9 p.m. on 31 October. The areas through which the Russian authorities suspended naval traffic include the Kerch Strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, which is of great importance to Ukrainian steel and grain exports.

This comes as the Ukrainian Foreign Minister accused Moscow of openly threatening to destroy Kiev, while Ukraine carried out maneuvers on the border with the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. The Foreign Ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in a show of solidarity with Ukraine. In an escalatory step, the Russian Federal Security Agency announced on Saturday 17 April that it had caught the Ukrainian consul in Saint Petersburg red-handed while receiving classified information from a Russian citizen.

Possible Scenarios

Three expected scenarios can be outlined for these serious tensions in US-Russia relations:

1. Deterioration of bilateral relations. This scenario assumes that relations may continue to worsen in the near future, taking into account the complexity and quantity of disputes between the two countries. These include issues related to internal affairs, such as spying, election interference, human rights, and many others, as well as significant conflicts of interest on the international stage. One of these is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is scheduled to double the quantity of Russian gas delivered to Germany through the Baltic Sea. However, the United States is imposing sanctions on the project, believing that it will increase European dependence on Russia. Other complex issues include Syria, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the situation in Belarus, where the Belarusian intelligence agency announced on Saturday 17 April that it was co-operating with the Russian security to defeat a "Washington-supported" attempt to assassinate President Alexander Lukashenko and overthrow the country’s government.

However, the most dangerous situation currently is the serious escalation along the Ukrainian border and in the Black Sea. Moscow has assembled hundreds of thousands of soldiers along the Ukrainian border, while the ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatist groups, who have been fighting the Kiev government for years, has collapsed. In the light of this escalation, and the major military maneuvers in the region, any exacerbation of the situation in Ukraine could lead to increased tension in the relationship between Russia and the United States.

2. De-escalatory policies. This scenario begins with the hypothesis that a significant escalation in tensions does not serve the interests of either side given the many areas of co-operation between them, such as arms control, the Iranian nuclear program, Afghanistan, the WHO, climate change, and several others. In addition, the United States is focused on competition with China. In this regard, on 13 April the US President Joe Biden invited his Russian counterpart to a summit in a third country in the coming months, in order to work on building stable relations between the two sides. Biden also mentioned, in a telephone conversation with Putin, his concern about Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border and in the Crimean peninsula, calling on Moscow to decrease tensions.

This comes as the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it looks positively on the White House’s suggestion to hold a summit between the Russian President and his US counterpart, despite the tension between the two countries. Finland offered to host the prospective summit between Biden and Putin, according to the Presidency’s announcement in Helsinki on Friday 16 April. Austria also announced its readiness to hold the meeting. A summit between the two parties could represent an opportunity to defuse the current tension between them.

3. Balance between escalation and calm. This scenario supposes that relations between the two sides will stagnate, equidistant between escalation and attempts at appeasement, given both the complexity of the disputes between them and the number of arenas in which they co-operate, such as the Iranian nuclear issue, climate change, and the Syrian crisis. Therefore, the Biden administration will, so it seems, pursue a policy which amounts to working together with Russia on the issues where the shared interests of the two countries can be realized. Biden has asserted that diplomacy should be the primary method, dealing with friends or rivals, in order to ensure that the United States achieves its global interests. Similarly, United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan considered it more plausible that relations between the two countries would remain difficult, but at the same time indicated that there are areas for shared work.

Through this framework, we find that although the US sanctions on Moscow are the largest since 2018, Washington did hold back from banning US entities from trading Russian bonds on secondary markets, a step which allows the two sides to work in areas of shared concern. Moscow also announced in early April that it had consented to extend an agreement with the United States on co-operation in space until December 2030. Early in February Washington agreed to a five-year extension of the New START treaty on nuclear weapons, after Moscow had previously ratified it.

In the same context, on 15 April the US navy canceled the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea, a step which came one day after Moscow’s announcement that the Russian Black Sea fleet had conducted live-fire exercises in the region, and two days after Presidents Biden and Putin held a phone call in which they talked about de-escalation and the possibility of holding a summit between them.

In summary, despite the current serious tensions in US-Russia relations, including an exchange of sanctions and the expulsion of senior diplomats, it is not expected that matters will go beyond this; nor is it likely that we will see a notable reduction in tensions in the near future. This is in view of the two sides’ overlapping interests, as well as the significant dangers involved in an escalation of tensions, given the multi-faceted suffering of the global economy and the desire of the United States to focus on confronting Chinese expansionism.