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A Dangerous Interregnum

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Authors: Zlatko Hadžidedić and Adnan Idrizbegović*

Less than two months are left for the transition of government in the United States of America. Not a long period, but sufficient to trigger processes that the next American administration would not be able to reverse. There are no reasons to doubt that President Trump, who still refuses to concede the election defeat, will try to make the future of the Biden Administration as difficult as possible. In this context, let us remember that President Trump hails the abandonment of the nuclear treaty with Iran as his highest achievement, so it would be reasonable to assume that he would do almost anything in his power to make this very step irreversible. The question of whether that includes the option of a military attack on Iran, therefore, hangs in the air.    

We are witnessing a current concentration of American air power in Iran’s neighbourhood. This particularly refers to strategic B52 bombers and F16s from American bases in Europe. Further arrival of F35s in the region would increase the likelihood of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. This likelihood might also be increased with the announced arrival of the aircraft carrier Nimitz into the Gulf waters. As news agencies reported, the military option of that type had already been seriously considered by President Trump and his advisors, although it did not enjoy a high degree of support among the highest US military officers. In the forthcoming period, as long as Trump sits in the White House, it is realistic to expect that this dispute between the military and the Administration will gain in intensity, given the fact that President Trump’s team is well-known for its stubborn sticking to its original agenda.

In this context, it must be noted that the nuclear treaty with Iran was declared as one of President Obama’s greatest foreign policy successes. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a detailed agreement with five annexes reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany). The nuclear deal was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It was a groundbreaking agreement that satisfied security concerns of Americans, Iranians, Arabs, Europeans, as well as others, opening the gates for Iran’s readmission onto the global scene. By adopting this treaty, Iran left its position of a pariah state. By betraying the treaty, President Trump has transformed the favourite role of the US as a leader of the free world into that of a pariah state. Does that imply his willingness to go even further in his rejection of all norms of international law, by launching a military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as a logical continuation of his unlawful withdrawal from the ratified international treaty? 

From President Trump’s perspective, such an action should prevent a quick and easy return of the US to the treaty in the post-Trump period. A war in the Gulf should lead to an instant rise of oil prices; consequently, it should also lead to the strengthening of the US dollar, linked to the prices of oil. In the times of the failing global economy, additionally burdened by the crippling effects of the pandemic, this would be the most favourable impetus to the withering economy of the US. The rise of oil prices would also have a negative effect on the manufacturing-oriented economies of American competitors in China and Europe. This rise would also strengthen the military industrial interests in the US, commonly backing the Republican Party, potentially at the expense of the financial ones, which traditionally stand behind the Democratic Party. 

A thorough, or even only partial, destruction of the Iranian nuclear programme would certainly be the most favourable outcome for hardliners on both sides, and President Trump probably sees it as a chance to either remain in power despite the election results, or to undermine the position of the future Administration. No doubt, that would trigger a robust return of Iranian hardliners to power in the forthcoming elections, which would probably close the door to negotiations with Iran for the President-elect. Most likely, it would give a strong push to the Tehran radicals to renew the nuclear programme, this time exclusively for military purposes. Since an attack itself would probably be launched from the US military bases in the region, it would also trigger an Iranian retaliatory attack on these countries. Such a development would probably strengthen homogeneity among the cornered Arab NATO countries, such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar, pushing them further into Israeli arms. This would also bring the Sunni-Shiite rift beyond the point of repair. Needless to say, most hardliners, not only in the West, would be absolutely delighted with that result. 

According to President Trump’s orders, the ongoing withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as Syria, must be completed 5 days before the transfer of power to the Biden Administration. The withdrawal itself (complete or partial) shall leave an enormous strategic gap, for which there is no alternative to fill the void. Such an exit strategy is without precedent in the American military history, especially given the monumental costs attached to the invading enterprise that took place in these three countries. President Trump’s orders, therefore, imply that another gigantic calculus may be at play this time, a calculus of lasting global significance. Let us remember that an absolute departure of all foreign troops from the region was, actually, Iran’s demand after the assassination of the commander of the Iranian Republican Guard, Kasseem Suleymani. Does that mean that President Trump has accepted Iranian rules, or even supremacy, in the Gulf? Does it mean that President Trump would abandon American allies in the Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia? And what will happen with oil, hitherto controlled by American companies, which exploited it due to the American military presence? Of course, if President Trump is not abandoning literally all American positions, alliances and interests in the region, it is likely that he must have some other strategic rationale. Perhaps cutting the military expenditures sounds acceptable to the ears of the American public. However, it is not sufficient to justify the magnitude of the shift.

The hasty withdrawal of the US troops, however, serves one clear purpose: it deprives Iran of available American targets for its potential retaliation attempts, and inevitably redirects Iranian wrath at the American allies in the Gulf. Thus the withdrawal not only increases the probability of President Trump’s military adventure against Iran, but also leaves the Arab allies between Iran and Israel, to choose their strategic sponsor. The question is, whether the recent secretive meeting between the Saudi Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is to be interpreted in this context?

In any case, the heaviest weight of the American absence in the region will fall on Israel’s shoulders. The Israelis know that an attack on Iran would bean option that could provide Israel with a necessary timeframe to adjust to these new realities and acquire a projected control over their Arab neighbours. A strategic importance of the attack would, therefore, require participation of Israel’s military. As the Israelis know it too well, detrimental effects on the Iranian nuclear programme are essential for the very existence of the state of Israel, since the Islamic Republic Iran is finally in the position to capitalise its long-lasting struggle against American dominance in the Middle East and gain strategic control over the entire Levant and the Gulf, so as to be promoted into a global player. The level of communication between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu suggests that certain promises may have been made to the Israelis that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is imminent. However, the assassination of the Iranian main nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, attributed to the Israeli intelligence agencies, might be interpreted as an attempt to undermine the Iranian nuclear programme without a full-scale attack, either because the Israelis do not believe in its feasibility, or because they are trying to avoid it, given its long-term consequences that eventually might prove unfavourable for Israel’s position.

There might be one more option at play, bearing in mind President Trump’s favourite „art of a deal“ strategy: a secret deal between the current US Administration and Iran, that the US leaves the Shiite world (Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, plus control over Afghanistan in potential partnership with Pakistan) to Iranian domination, in exchange for Iranian tacit permission to have the plutonium generator in Arak – suitable for development of a military nuclear programme – bombed and temporarily destroyed by the US. That option would buy several years to both the US and Israel, with a significant postponement of Iran’s eventual production of a nuclear weapon. To the other side, it would give Iran a chance to improve its geopolitical position as one of the two main powers in the region, in interim coexistence with Israel as a de facto leader of the Arab NATO alliance. Under these circumstances, a Shiite bloc led by Tehran, separating Sunni Arab countries from Turkey and Russian influence, might be a favourable development for the US. The questions are, of course, to what extent it would be acceptable to Israel, and to what extent it would draw Iran into overstretching, and effectively, into economic weakening.        

Whatever the calculus of the outgoing Trump Administration, the incoming Administration of the President-elect Biden has no interest in allowing that such dangerous developments take place. If President Trump orders an attack on Iran in the last 5 days of his mandate, right after the departure of the American troops from the region, all its negative consequences will be attributed to the Biden Administration, crippling their announced initiatives to stabilise the world affairs. For, Its geopolitical consequences could be numerous: a takeover of the Middle East by the strengthened Iranian radicals; a possible nuclearisation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and maybe Egypt; a further rapprochement between Iran and Russia, this time in the sphere of strategic nuclear cooperation, which would eventually terminate the Western influence in Eurasia. 

By going in that direction, President Trump would promote the strategy of „poisoning the well“ to the future Democratic Administration, depriving it of prospects for relevant foreign policy results in its next 4 years. Eventually, that might lead to the second coming of Trump; and then, to a burial of American democracy and implementation of an authoritarian one-party regime, as desired by the Republican radicals ever since the mid-1970s. 

*Adnan Idrizbegović, Independent researcher, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Dr. Zlatko Hadžidedić is the founder and director of the Center for Nationalism Studies, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (www.nationalismstudies.org).

Americas

Biden: No More “Favourite Dictators”

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

 Former US President Donald Trump shared a strong personal rapport with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Trump made no bones about the fact, that he got along well with authoritarian leaders – especially in the Middle East. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump while looking for Egyptian President had even said, “Where’s my favourite dictator?”

Statements made by Biden before taking over as US President

On the other hand, Joe Biden before taking over as US President had repeatedly criticized Erdogan, MBS and Sisi for their poor human rights record, and had unequivocally stated that none of them would have a free pass in a Biden Presidency.  Biden had on numerous occasions flagged the dismal Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia, especially MBS’ involvement in the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and lashed out at Trump for soft pedaling on the issue because of his personal rapport with MBS. Similarly, in August 2020, Biden had dubbed Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’ and also expressed the view that the US needed to lend support to opposition parties in Turkey. Biden had also issued a warning to Sisi, saying that there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’.”

How President Biden has approached relations with the three leaders

During the Biden Administration, ties with Saudi Arabia have witnessed a change. A report which clearly points to MBS’ role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was released (Trump had refused to release this report). The US has withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and defence agreements signed between the US and Saudi Arabia, during the Trump Administration have been put on hold. Yet, Biden while sanctioning Saudi officials in connection with the Khashoggi case, in addition to those sanctioned by the Trump administration, refused to impose sanctions on MBS owing to the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East (Saudi support is essential for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA) and the strong US-Saudi relationship. It would be pertinent to point out, that Biden’s decision not to impose sanctions on MBS has drawn strong criticism from many including members of his own party.

If one were to look at the case of Turkey in recent months, the Turkish President has himself toned down his Anti-West rhetoric and described his meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the recent NATO Summit as fruitful. While commenting on the meeting with Biden, Erdogan stated that ‘ We believe there is no problem that cannot be resolved in Turkey-US relations,’

The US President also said, that the meeting with Erdogan was positive and expressed hope that the bilateral relationship would improve in days to come.

While the meeting between Biden and Erdogan was positive, differences between both sides still persist over Turkey’s purchase of S400 missiles (the Trump administration had imposed sanctions in its final days and Turkey had also been removed from its F-35 fighter jet program)

Turkey’s strategic relevance

Turkey has stated that it is willing to play a role in security in Afghanistan, and guard Kabul airport, after the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Turkish President did say that Turkey would require diplomatic, logistic and financial support that the United States. The Biden administration’s outreach to Turkey indicates that in spite of differences over key issues, Istanbul’s potentially important role post the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is something, the US will not ignore. Erdogan on his part needs to have a reasonable relationship with US, given the fact that the Turkish economy has slowed down significantly.

If one were to look at the case of Egypt, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi role in the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, was acknowledged by the Biden Administration. While the US President during a telephonic conversation hailed Sisi for his ‘successful diplomacy’ in the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

‘We have had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly. And now, we are working closely together to build something positive’

It would be pertinent to point out, that during his telephonic conversation with Sisi, in May 2021, Biden did flag the need for a ‘constructive dialogue’ on human rights in Egypt

Conclusion

While it is easy to criticise Joe Biden, he has the onerous responsibility of striking a  balance between values, which he has repeatedly referred to even after taking over as President, with US interests. Given the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, Biden while refraining from taking steps, which may be counterproductive has flagged his concerns with regard to Human Rights, and sent out a strong message that bilateral relations will be dictated by substance and not mere personal chemistry or optics. At the end of the day it is important not to forget Miles’s law — ‘where you stand depends upon where you sit’.

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Americas

The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Americas

Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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