(Photo by Angela Weiss and Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images)
By holding a tete-a-tete with Vladimir Putin just after the G7 summit in Cornwall, US President Joe Biden may signal a move towards a G7 and a half arrangement in which Russia, once a full member of the club, secures a side chair in its ante-chamber. The arrangement suits Putin just fine. For his strategy has always aimed at taking the Western democracies one by one and not as a bloc such as NATO, the European Union or the G7.
But what does Putin want?
In one sense he wants a return to the good or bad old days, when the USSR and the United States were regarded as arbiters of world affairs on an equal footing.
To that end Putin has pursued a policy of activism tout-azimut [from all angles]. In Europe he has cast himself as protector in Belarus and a key player in Ukrainian politics. At the same time he has established relations with Hungary and Slovakia while playing the "Orthodox" card with Serbia, Greece and Cyprus. Adopting a threatening profile, he has also tried to peddle a revised version of Finlandization with regard to the Baltic republics while keeping Poland under pressure. Using Russia's position as a key supplier of energy to Western Europe, especially Germany, Putin has tried to influence the policies of the European Union, weakened by Brexit. In Moscow, Biden's decision to lift the veto on the extension of the Russian energy supply network to Europe is already regarded as a success for Putin's activist, not say aggressive, diplomacy.
Putin's tout-azimutism has also affected other regions regarded by Russia as "near-neighbours".
Just over a decade ago the United States was the key foreign power player in Transcaucasia and guarantor of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Today, however, the US shines in its absence. A similar situation exists in Central Asia, where the US under President George W Bush had established a number of bases around which a network of political and economic influence was woven. Today, thanks to the Obama era, that vast region is morphing into a race course between China and Russia, with the US as a distant observer.
The summit with Biden would be an opportunity for Putin to impose a number of "events" as faits-accomplis, notably the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Putin has exploited Obama's numerous mistakes in the Middle East. He has built bridgeheads to a number of countries that were once in the Soviet orbit, notably Egypt and Iraq, while casting itself as the arbiter of Syria's fate. Using the Islamic Republic in Iran as his Trojan horse, Putin is also gaining a foothold in Lebanon. More timidly he has started to woo some of the more traditional allies of the US while throwing morsels of prestige to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his quest for cheap glory.
Putin's biggest target, however, is Iran, a country that has threatened and tempted Russian rulers since Peter the Great.
For more than two decades Putin has been working to eliminate all possibility of Iran returning to its two-centuries old quest for sharing the Western vision of the world. Putin now feels that the time has come for a final throw of the dice.
After four decades of upheaval, the "Russophile" anti-West and anti-democratic forces in Iran appear on the verge of total victory in the power struggle that pitted them against "Americanophile" factions that hoped to prolong the Khomeinist system, warts and all, under US patronage.
What Putin wants from Biden with regard to Iran is the lifting of sanctions against Iran which could make it more or less solvent within a few years. If the sanctions remain, Iran, now unable to pay its membership fee to the United Nations, would be nothing but an ugly and expensive mistress for Russia. With sanctions lifted, Russia could gain control of Iran's immense energy resources. That would enable Russia to control Iran's market share, thus heightening its own profile as the key source of supply for Europe and, in time, for China. In exchange, Iran would be helped to secure enough money to keep the regime in place and pursue an edited version of its "exporting revolution" scenario within limits fixed by Russia.
Last week Lukoil president Vagit Alekprov and Putin's Minister of Energy Nikolai Shelginov received a high-ranking Iranian delegation to discuss plans for reviving Iran's moribund oil industry with a pilot project to bring into production the Mansuri Oilfield in southwest Iran, which is estimated to contain 3.1 billion barrels of crude. The event could mark the end of over a century of efforts by successive Iranian regimes to keep Russia out of the nation's energy industry.
Putin also hopes that Iran will quickly ratify the so-called Caspian Convention, which would turn the world's largest lake into a Russia pond and shut Western powers out.
Putin is certain to encourage the "Asia-Pacific" vision first marketed by Obama and try to divert US attention from Russia's shenanigans to China's "looming threat." By excluding itself from Afghanistan, the US leaves the field open for new players in the latest version of the "Great Game". China, using Pakistan as its local "fixer," is already courting the Taliban as Islamabad's surrogate to rule Afghanistan.
For its part, Russia is developing an axis with India and Iran to counter the Beijing-Islamabad duo. Here, too, the US will be distant spectator.
Putin will cast several skillfully baited hooks for Biden. He would talk of stabilizing Europe, containing China, keeping the North Koreans within the red lines, not allowing the mad mullahs of Tehran to go beyond certain limits in their pretended "Jihad" against Israel, and preventing the Taliban from seizing control of Afghanistan and undoing all that has been done with blood and money from the US and its Afghan and Western allies.
Putin hopes to see the end of G7 and the return of the Big-2 of which Nikita Khrushchev boasted in the early 1960s.
The question that Biden needs to ponder is this: Is Putin turning Russia into a mere competitor for power and prestige for the US or is he, as some of his barely concealed misdeeds indicate, an enemy of the democratic world, formerly known as "The Free World"?
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.