- After hawkishness during the campaign, President Joe Biden has taken a pragmatic approach to Russia.
- Now the world’s two largest nuclear-weapons powers have a responsibility to reduce tensions.
- Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
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During his long campaign for the presidency, Joe Biden presented himself as the consummate Russia hawk – a man who would hold the Kremlin accountable for a litany of sins ranging from cyber-espionage to meddling in US elections.
Whereas Biden called China a competitor, he referred to Russia as an “opponent,” a country seeking to bully its neighbors in the post-Soviet space and challenge US hegemony around the world.
In the first 100 days of his term, however, now-President Joe Biden has adopted a more pragmatic mindset with respect to the Kremlin.
While Biden is no dove when it comes to Russia – the administration has enacted several rounds of economic sanctions against Moscow, the latest on April 15 in response to the SolarWinds cyber-breach – he is also cognizant that the US-Russia relationship is too big to fail completely.
If the first several months of Biden’s tenure are any indication of where things are going, dialogue will remain a key plank of US Russia policy going forward.
While the US and Russia won’t be resetting their relations anytime soon, the world’s two largest nuclear-weapons powers have a unique responsibility to ensure tensions between them are mitigated, one another’s core interests are respected and cooperation on common agenda items is preserved.
Currently, US-Russia relations can be categorized charitably as unproductive. Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Ambassador to the US, hasn’t been in his Washington, DC, office for a nearly two months. US Ambassador John Sullivan isn’t in his Moscow office either, having traveled back to Washington for consultations partly at Russia’s urging.
Only weeks ago, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin were calling each other names. Before the Russian Defense Ministry ordered a pullback of forces last week, Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s eastern border prompted senior US officials to warn Moscow of unspecified consequences in the event of a second invasion.
And of course there’s the situation with Alexei Navalny, Putin’s political foe who the Russian government has tried to silence in more ways than one – first by poisoning, then by a two and a half year prison sentence for violating his parole.
The imminent branding of Navalny’s organization as extremist will re-confirm in the minds of many in Washington that Putin’s Russia is on an irreversible authoritarian track.
However, the question isn’t whether Russia is becoming increasingly autocratic or whether Washington and Moscow can see the world through the same lens.
The question, rather, is whether two powers that control 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpile can find a way to coexist peacefully and settle on a relationship that at least stalls further confrontation.
Biden’s remarks at the White House on April 15 are a positive step in the right direction. Stressing that additional deescalation would have negative repercussions for both the US and Russia, Biden emphasized that “[t]he way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process.”
Assuming Biden’s proposed summit with Putin actually happens (the meeting could occur as early as June), this would be a significant development given the current state of US-Russia relations.
But if Biden and Putin are sincere in making some degree of progress, they need to spend far less effort reciting grievances and focus more on what is realistically possible.
Because strategic stability remains the top priority in US-Russia relations, it should be at the very top of the agenda for any summit meeting.
Washington and Moscow have already made strides in this regard by extending New START for another five years, an accord that places strict caps on deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers and provides both countries with rigorous inspection protocols to verify compliance.
Saving New START from imminent death, however, is literally the bare minimum the US and Russia could do.
Both nations have now bought themselves additional time to explore more comprehensive arrangements on what strategic weapons systems are next-up for limitations – the Biden-Putin summit would be a perfect forum to jump-start those discussions.
Washington and Moscow also need to discover a way to move their relations from one of mutual antagonism to one of normality.
Over the last several years, both countries have expelled one another’s diplomats, closed one another’s consulates, and banned certain high-level officials from getting visas. While some of this may have been justifiable in the moment, none of it is conductive to a pragmatic, working relationship over the long-term.
Biden and Putin should therefore use their conversations as an opportunity to stop further expulsions and, when appropriate, to begin lifting current restrictions.
This would admittedly be a small deliverable for a meeting at the head-of-state level. Yet at a time when the US-Russia relationship is at its lowest point in the post-Cold War era, even minor remedial steps can have major dividends down the road.
“The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia,” Biden told the American people earlier this month. “We want a stable, predictable relationship.”
This is the right objective. The Biden administration must now put those words into action.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.