Every American president in this century has entered office with one paramount foreign-policy objective in mind: Repair American relations with Russia.
George W. Bush alleged that Democrats were “locked in a Cold War mentality.” He was critical of Western peacekeeping missions in the Balkans that Moscow regarded as provocative, and he campaigned on restarting stalled arms-control negotiations. Barack Obama sought to “reset” relations with Russia, which had soured over the Bush years, and he opened the gambit by scuttling planned interceptor and radar installations in Central Europe. Donald Trump was strangely beholden to the delusion that he could flatter Vladimir Putin into submission even as his administration did almost everything within its power to contain Russian aggression.
Yesterday, we were privy to something resembling the fourth consecutive Russian reset. But Biden’s approach appears to be grounded in something resembling a realist assessment of the obstacles to a “stable and predictable” Russo-American détente. If we’re to judge by Biden’s hearteningly uncompromising public comments following his marathon meeting with the Russian autocrat, analysts who feared that the United States was “sleepwalking into a reset with Russia” can rest a little easier.
But not too easy. Beyond the refreshingly tough talk, there was little to emerge from this summit that might reassure those who hope to deter Russian revanchism.
Biden provided few specifics to reporters regarding many of the outstanding security issues that threaten to undermine bilateral relations, or worse. But he did elaborate on his efforts to prevent the plausibly deniable Russian-based hackers from executing attacks on U.S. private and public interests. The president told Putin that 16 crucial elements of American infrastructure were “off-limits,” ranging “from the energy sector to our water systems.”
The enumeration of those interests is hardly reassuring. Historians will hear the eerie echo of Dean Acheson implying by omission in 1950 that the Korean Peninsula was situated outside of the American “defense perimeter,” leading Joseph Stalin to greenlight Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea that year. Moscow is listening to what Americans say as much as to what is left unsaid, and Putin may regard Biden’s boundary-setting as a license for Russians to do what they like outside those limits.
Even if that’s not the case, the notion that there will be any cooling of cyber tensions is fanciful. Russian interests have a gun to the head of America’s critical infrastructure, just as Washington holds Russian interests hostage. But unlike the weapons of the arms race, these guns go off all the time. If these two presidents discussed de-escalating that sub rosa cyber conflict, reporters weren’t told about it.
President Biden went on to belabor the point that Russia would face severe consequences if opposition figure Alexei Navalny succumbed to maltreatment while in the state’s custody. Moscow would face serious consequences in that event, Biden insisted. But why would Putin believe that? The consequences meted out against Russia in response to the brazen “SolarWinds” cyberattack, which compromised a hundred private companies and a dozen government agencies, were embarrassingly timid. If those are the costs associated with Russia’s recklessness, they can be absorbed. And after they were absorbed on this last occasion, Biden saw fit to reward Russia by allowing Moscow to complete the Nord Stream II pipeline into Europe and orchestrate a glitzy diplomatic affair festooned with all the trappings of state. Where is the deterrence?
But perhaps ambiguity was destined to be the outcome of this summit because the imbalance of demands favored Russia from the beginning. America needs Russian cooperation on an expansive list of Biden administration priorities. The White House needs Russia to negotiate a second Iran nuclear deal, which requires Moscow to take custody of Iranian enriched uranium. It needs Russia to facilitate a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, ceasing its material support for the Taliban and supporting U.S. basing rights in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. It needs Russian cooperation in the arctic, on refugee resettlement issues, and regarding disputes in places like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova (where Russia supports and prosecutes semi-frozen separatist conflicts with considerable caprice).
Moscow is either disinclined to bend on these issues or will only respond to American concessions, such as easing sanctions against Russian interests. If the Biden administration’s approach to negotiations with Iran is any indication, sanctions relief—even in the absence of reciprocity—is most likely on the table. Moscow does not regard heightened tensions with the United States as undesirable but a natural consequence of its strength and assertiveness in defense of its own interests. The Kremlin sees a direct relationship between rising national power and American consternation, so conflict with the United States isn’t just unavoidable but welcome.
Joe Biden’s first trip abroad as president—a whirlwind diplomatic blitz involving the G7, the NATO alliance, and a summit with the Russian president—wasn’t without its share of successes. But if Biden’s design for this principals’ conference was to deter Russia from engaging in destabilizing behavior, we have few indications that the president succeeded. Indeed, Putin likely took the measure of his American counterpart and has concluded that he has more license to test his parameters than he thought. After all, from his perspective, we need him more than he needs us.