Competitors on the world stage, Russia and the US are quietly searching for areas of consensus

MOSCOW – It may seem as if little has changed for Russia and the US, two old adversaries seeking to undermine each other around the world.

Russian missiles with nuclear weapons capacity were spotted near Ukraine, and the Kremlin hinted at the possibility of a new intervention there. There is tested hypersonic cruise missiles surrounding the U.S. defense and cut all ties with a NATO-led NATO alliance. After the summer break, the attacks of extortion software coming from Russian territory continued, and last week Microsoft unveiled new Russian cyber surveillance campaign.

Since President Biden took office nine months ago, the U.S. has imposed new large-scale sanctions against Russia, continued to arm and train the Ukrainian military, and threatened retaliatory cyber attacks on Russian targets. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has so to speak stopped issuing visas.

When world leaders met at the G20 summit in Rome this weekend, Mr Biden did not even have the opportunity to speak face-to-face with his Russian counterpart because President Vladimir V. Putin, citing concerns about the coronavirus, attended the event remotely. .

However, beneath the superficial edge, two global rivals are now doing something else as well: talking.

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

A serious discussion on arms control is underway, the deepest in recent years. White House chief consultant for cyber and emerging technologies, Anne Neuberger, attended a series of silent, virtual meetings with her Kremlin counterpart. A few weeks ago – after an extensive discussion in the US intelligence community about how much to reveal – the United States revealed the names and other details of a few hackers who were actively carrying out attacks on America.

Now, one official said, the U.S. is waiting to see if the information will lead to arrests, a test of whether Mr Putin meant it seriously when he said it would allow the suppression of ransomware and other cybercrimes.

Officials in both countries say the influx of talks has yielded little content so far, but it helps prevent Russian-American tensions from spiraling out of control.

A senior administration official said the United States is “very clear” about Mr Putin and the Kremlin’s intentions, but believes it can work together on issues such as arms control. The official noted that Russia has been closely linked to the United States in renewing Iran’s nuclear deal and to a lesser extent in dealing with North Korea, but acknowledged that there are many other areas where Russians are “trying to throw the key into action.”

Mr Biden’s measured approach has earned praise from Russia’s foreign policy establishment, which sees the White House’s increased engagement as a sign that America is ready to make new deals.

“Biden understands the importance of a sober approach,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Moscow foreign policy analyst advising the Kremlin. “The most important thing Biden understands is that he will not change Russia. Russia is as 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 the domestic agenda, which faces countless challenges. For Mr Putin, talks with the world’s richest and most powerful nation are a way to show Russia’s global influence – and to brighten up its domestic image as a guarantor of stability.

“What Russians hate more than anything else should be ignored,” said Fiona Hill, who worked as a top expert on Russia in the National Security Council before President Donald J. Trump. witness against him at his first indictment hearings. “Because they want to be the lead actor on stage, and if we don’t pay that much attention to them, they’ll find ways to get our attention.”

For the United States, however, the reach is fraught with risk, prompting the Biden administration to be criticized for being too willing to cooperate with Putin-led Russia, which continues to undermine American interests and suppress dissent.

European officials are concerned that Russia is playing hard during the region’s energy crisis and is demanding approval of a new pipeline before supplying more gas. New footage, which rounded up on social media on Friday, shows rockets and other Russian weapons moving near Ukraine, sparking speculation about the possibility of new Russian measures against the country.

In the United States, the destructive nature of Russia’s cyber campaign is one that officials are particularly concerned about. Microsoft Disclosure new campaign to infiltrate its cloud services and infiltrate thousands of U.S. governments, corporations, and think tanks has made it clear that Russia is ignoring sanctions imposed by Mr. Biden following the January invasion of Solar Winds.

According to Dmitry Alperovich, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator research group, this also meant what now looks like a permanent change in Russian tactics. He noted that the move to undermine U.S. cyberspace infrastructure, not just an intrusion into individual corporate or federal goals, was “a tactical shift of direction, not a one-time operation.”

Russia has already found ways to use Mr Biden’s desire for what the White House describes as a more “stable and predictable” relationship, to make precise concessions to Washington.

When Victoria Nuland, the top State Department official, recently wanted to visit Moscow for talks in the Kremlin, the Russian government did not immediately agree. Ms. Nuland, who is seen in Moscow as one of Washington’s most influential Russian hawks, was on a blacklist of people banned from entering the country.

But the Russians offered a deal. If Washington were to grant a visa to a top Russian diplomat who has not been able to enter the United States since 2019, Ms. Nuland could come to Moscow. Biden’s management accepted the offer.

Mrs Nuland’s talks in Moscow have been described as extensive, but there are clearly areas in the rush of US-Russian talks that the Kremlin is reluctant to discuss: Russia’s crackdown on dissent and the treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny has remained largely unresolved, despite disapproval. , expressed by Mr Biden this year on this matter.

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

“Biden has been very successful in signaling to Russia,” said Kadri Liik, an expert on Russia at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “Russia wants the privilege of a great power to break the rules. But you need rules for that. And like it or not, the United States is still an important player among the setters of world rules.”

The most important talks between Russian and US officials were about what the two call “strategic stability” – a phrase that covers traditional arms control and concerns that new technology, including the use of artificial intelligence to control weapons systems, could lead to unintentional warfare. or shorten decision-making time so that leaders avoid conflict. Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, led the delegation on these issues, and U.S. officials describe them as a “bright spot” in the relationship.

Working groups have been set up, including one to discuss a “new weapon” such as Russia’s Poseidon, an autonomous nuclear torpedo.

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

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

Alexei Overchuk, Russia’s deputy prime minister, met with Ms. Sherman and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser – talks that Mr Overchuk described in comments to the Russian media as “very good and fair”.

Mr Putin, who, after more than 20 years in power, is well-versed in the subtleties of diplomatic communication, welcomes such gestures of respect. Analysts noted that he also sent his signal recently: Asked by an Iranian guest at an October conference whether Mr Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan heralds a decline in US power, Mr Putin praised Biden’s decision and rejected the idea that a chaotic departure would affect the long term. to the image of America.

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

Anton Trojanovski reported from Moscow and David E. Sanger from Washington.

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