Biden’s Russia strategy needs to look past Putin

President Joe Biden’s track record on Russia is a mixed bag. First, he called the Russian leader Vladimir Putin a killer, then called him to schedule a one-on-one and praised his willingness to work together on climate change. A consistent strategy will be necessary that avoids a shooting war with the Kremlin, protects its neighbors, and keeps its geopolitical ambitions in check.

Tensions on the Russo-Ukrainian border eased as Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered the gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from the deployment areas. The apparent saber-rattling by Moscow was the last episode in a difficult month for Russia and its relations with the United States and Europe. The specter of war temporarily receded, but the confrontation between the great powers — from Alaska to the Baltic Sea — is ongoing. The Biden administration, facing a challenge in the Pacific from the rising China, needs a strategy to deal with Moscow. It has two components: a threat of sanctions and an attempt to find a leader with whom the West can do business. 

The deployment of over 100,000 soldiers along the Russo-Ukrainian border had brought back fears that the conflict could escalate beyond 2014 ceasefire lines, and that the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa were at play. By punching west beyond Mariupol, Russia would roll along the Black Sea coast, turning Ukraine into a land-locked country.

The threat of war along the northern shores of the Black sea horrified the Ukrainians and rattled NATO allies, including Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. It also exposed the impotence of the United States and its western allies to effectively deter further Russian aggression against its neighbors, Ukraine included. Belarus, Georgia, and even Azerbaijan could be next.

The United States launched a fresh wave of sanctions against Moscow, including new restrictions on U.S. financial institutions to deal in Russian sovereign debt. The sanctions will target the country’s Central Bank, Finance Ministry, and the sovereign wealth fund. The Biden administration also focused on individuals and corporations involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, foreign election interference, and the massive SolarWinds cyberattack, which involved U.S. Government and corporations.

The current sanctions do not have teeth. On the immediate basis, Western democracies should consider putting pressure on Russia where it really hurts — its key foreign trade sectors as well as access to technologies and materials where the Kremlin would find it difficult to secure import substitution in the foreseeable future. Such sanctions could be held as a deterrent and implemented in case of a war.

Under Putin, Russia will remain a prickly fortress. The strategy towards the Kremlin needs to be realistic and long term. The U.S. and its allies need to think about the time Putin may leave the political scene. History suggests that the reforms in Russia always come from the top: the czars Peter the Great, Catherine II, Alexander II, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were all the reformist leaders.

The coming succession power struggle will be vicious — what Winston Churchill called “a bulldog fight under a rug.” As the post-Putin succession develops, the U.S. could do business with those who in Russia are called “system liberals”: former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is unpopular and unelectable; former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, currently the chairman of the state-run VEB development bank; and Anatoly Chubais, the father of the controversial asset privatization, who aided Putin’s meteoric rise in Moscow in the late 1990s. Yet, Chubais is universally detested and blamed for the rise of the oligarchs.

However, there is one leader whose reputation remains intact: Alexei Kudrin, the former First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, is respected by the “liberals” and hardliners. He is currently the head of the Accounting Chamber (the equivalent of the Government Accountability Office). A prominent economist, he is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University — Putin’s alma mater. Kudrin was named Finance Minister of the Year twice: in 2004 and in 2010.

Unlike some succession candidates, he is not a security official or a former Soviet-trained spy, and is a longtime proponent of free trade with a great track record as a liberal reformer. He is also an independent thinker. Kudrin is well regarded for his prudent fiscal management and does not have a cloud of corruption around him, as many others in the Russian elite do.

While he is a Putin insider and a trusted adviser, he was a fellow Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, and a part of the president’s inner circle during his service as Minister of Finance for over a decade. Even the siloviki — senior officials in the military-security establishment — deeply respect him. He clearly has charisma as well as unfulfilled aspirations for public politics.

The U.S. would be wise to begin working with Kudrin’s team on possible scenarios for improved bilateral relations with Russia — both now and after Putin departs.

Russia recognizes that the international system is coming apart as China is rising — and is looking to play a balancing role between the reigning American superpower and the peer competitor in the East. The Russian foreign policy and business establishment recognizes the need to improve the relations.

Sanctions are but a short-term instrument to extract costs from the Kremlin. What is needed is the longer-term strategy that involves the prospect of normalization of Russia’s relations with the West; making peace with Ukraine; distancing Russia from China; and improving domestic climate, including human rights and democratic norms — and Russian leaders who can play ball to improve the relations.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center.

Tags Alexei Kudrin Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Biden foreign policy Foreign relations of Russia Government of Russia Joe Biden Politics of Russia Russia Russia–Ukraine relations SolarWinds Vladimir Putin

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