For a country that has been given lower priority by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration than by any of his predecessors since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Russia has received more than its initially allotted share of Washington’s attention in Biden’s first 100 days.
Right after inauguration, Biden acted swiftly to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which was due to expire on February 5. He spoke by phone with Vladimir Putin, who had long been ready for such an extension.
Shortly after that, in March, Biden created a stir in U.S.-Russia relations by publicly agreeing with a journalist’s description of Putin as a “killer.” It prompted Moscow to recall its ambassador from Washington for the first time in almost eighty years.
In April, Biden called Putin again to discuss a range of issues, including the military buildup along the Russia-Ukraine border. Biden alerted Putin to impending U.S. sanctions for what the U.S. treasury secretary called Russia’s “malign behavior,” but Biden suggested that the two presidents meet in Europe to discuss de-escalation of tensions. The sanctions package, Biden’s first, followed within days.
A Cooler Approach
At first glance, Biden’s emerging Russia policy looks very different from that of former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Unlike under Trump, the president and U.S. Congress are fully united on the need to face Russia as a long-term adversary. No more talk from the White House of a desire to “get along with Russia” and no more warmth toward Putin personally. And in contrast to Obama’s first term, there is no talk of a reset.
However, there is plenty of continuity from both Trump’s presidency and, to a degree, Obama’s second term in the form of U.S. sanctions on Russia and condemnations of its behavior. America’s frustration with Russia is running high.
Looking from Moscow, the new U.S. administration’s policy on Russia appears to be built on a baffling dichotomy. On the one hand, Biden and his team are seasoned pragmatists whose main focus is squarely on the United States itself. This logically requires a foreign policy of careful retrenchment and conflict mitigation.
On the other hand, the Democratic administration faces a seminal challenge to U.S. global dominance and even primacy, posed by China. Next to it stands a challenge to the stability of Western democratic institutions, including in the United States itself. The internal threat to U.S. democracy is enhanced, as many Americans believe, by Russia’s disruptive actions.
Tackling both challenges at the same time requires a liberal and democratic rejuvenation at home and strengthening geopolitical alliances overseas to oppose Beijing and Moscow. It was former president Bill Clinton who once famously quipped that the United States could “walk and chew gum at the same time” in its relations with post-Soviet Russia. In other words, Washington would do what it thought necessary and ignore Moscow’s sulking.
It appears that Biden might wish to revive that pattern. This means working with Russia on issues in the U.S. interest: nuclear arms, space weapons, nonproliferation, and more—while continuing to punish Moscow for actions that Washington finds objectionable.
New candor also demands that U.S. leaders make no secret of how they view their Russian counterparts: as a bunch of kleptocrats and killers. Like in the Clinton era, this approach would be based on the United States’ superior strength. Inevitably, pragmatism in Biden’s foreign policy has to walk side by side with ideology and confrontation.
Russia’s Evolving Tactics
The problem with such a policy is that Russia has changed since the “Bill and Boris” show. Russia is far less dependent on the United States than at any time since the end of the Soviet Union. U.S. sanctions have launched a powerful dynamic that made Russia focus inward and on non-Western countries, starting with China.
Moscow is now convinced that the United States is a hostile power bent on weakening Russia. The Kremlin has relatively few cards to play in a confrontation with the United States, but it is willing and ready to play them—as Putin in his State of the Nation address, “asymmetrically, swiftly, and harshly.” Moreover, Russia is borrowing a page from Biden’s book: it will deal with Washington only when it serves Russia’s own interest.
Having made its point in the form of countersanctions mostly affecting U.S. diplomats in Russia, and the about “red lines” not to be crossed, the Kremlin has accepted Biden’s invitation for Putin to speak at the virtual climate summit. The two presidents’ national security advisers are engaged in conversations on a range of issues that might be included in the agenda of a U.S.-Russia summit if and when it takes place.
Putin and Biden don’t need a summit to size up each other. They have met before, and each understands where the other is coming from. Neither can they be expected to solve the thorny issues that set the United States against Russia. They cannot even dial down the confrontation. What they can and should do is to make sure that there are guardrails in place to hold U.S.-Russian adversity in check.