Understanding Russia and ourselves before the summit

Understanding Russia and ourselves before the summit
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The biggest challenges in the U.S.-Russia relationship are the absence of a clear vision for what Washington wants that relationship to be, an understanding of the art of the possible and, at the same time, a failing to understand what contemporary Russia is in reality, not hyperbole. These are important considerations as the forthcoming summit between President Joseph Biden and President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin's flying nuclear command center presents a Doomsday scenario indeed Russian court sentences Navalny ally to 18 months of supervision Russia says 24 diplomats asked by US to leave by September MORE steadily approaches.

There has yet to be, and perhaps never will be, an articulation of a Kennan-esque grand strategy toward Russia again. Then, while far from simple, containment and political warfare were the methods of the day. Since the end of the Cold War, the fixation has seemed to be so much on style and not on substance, all without a coherent and consistent strategy underpinning the effort. Strategy is at its core a balancing of competing priorities with limited resources and an articulation of ends, ways and means. On nearly every account, Washington today is found wanting.

What does Washington want the relationship with Moscow to be, or what does it need it to be? Is it a relationship at all or merely an understanding? For that matter, what can the relationship be given Moscow’s interests and active usurpation of norms of behavior and destabilizing activities? Here, much of the public dialogue today has focused on behaviors Washington wants Moscow to refrain from doing, which is of course an absolutely necessary starting point.

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From Moscow’s perspective, there has been, and is, little need to cooperate with Washington, especially as by and large Washington has not appreciated the irregular conflict in which it presently finds itself, has had few incentives valuable enough to entice Moscow to change its behavior and has limited means to dissuade the Kremlin from its present course of action. If a strategy is working — the destabilization of the West and Western alliances via irregular means for international benefit and domestic gain — why change it at all if there is no tangible incentive or benefit to doing so?

Here, the question of tools, incentives and punishments becomes central. Today, the only tools Washington seems to find at hand are strongly worded demarches and an over reliance on dollar-denominated sanctions as a default response to any transgression. To be sure, sanctions are a useful tool, especially to signal displeasure at a particular behavior, but they are not an end in and of themselves — and their utility is decreasing with each phase.

Here, the administration should be given due credit for taking preliminary and strong steps on reining in the kleptocrats of the world and making dirty money move significantly harder. Yet, there has been no off-ramp for those sanctions, no incentives for cooperation and no real reason for Moscow to do anything but continue its behavior.

It is here that the forthcoming summit is perhaps the best first step, if not the least bad option. While there has been much ink spilled over whether or not Biden should meet Putin at all, the reality is that withholding a summit is not much of a punishment and holding a summit isn’t much of an incentive either — it’s simply a fact of doing business.

Of course, talking and engagement does not mean passive acceptance or toleration of bad behavior. None of this is to excuse or pardon Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea, its cyberattacks, its intelligence operations, or its persecution of political opponents like Alexei Navalny. Certainly not. But engagement is a starting point and an opportunity to communicate one’s message clearly, provided there is an understanding of what Washington wants and does not want in equal measures. 

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Talking with a strategic competitor is neither a demonstration of strength or weakness. It is an opportunity to clearly state Washington’s position without interference, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation — face-to-face with Putin. Going into this summit, however, Washington must have a clear set of goals and objectives, the aforementioned yet missing strategy that also understands and appreciates Moscow as it is, not as we wish it or think it to be.

This goes to the fact that Washington (broadly speaking) fundamentally fails to understand Putin and Russia’s political inner workings. It is neither governed purely by Putin’s KGB-inspired passions and whims, nor is it a victim of its historical place, its culture, or some other intangible quirk of the Russian spirit. Putin operates, as Timothy Frye eloquently notes, a personalist autocracy — but one that is nonetheless just as hamstrung by the same problems as autocrats the world over. Politics in Moscow is all about the complex balancing of competing political and financial interests.

If anything of substance is to come out of the forthcoming summit, the White House needs to understand what it wants the relationship to be and what that relationship can be, what tools it has at its disposal (and just as important, the limitations of its power). But it also needs an understanding of who is sitting across the table from Biden and the system in which Putin himself lives and operates. Anything less than that is merely a photo opportunity.

Joshua Huminski is director of the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersThe US has a Nord Stream 2 agreement, but still lacks direction on Russia Overnight Defense: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dies at 88 | Trump calls on Milley to resign | House subpanel advances Pentagon spending bill Pentagon punches back against GOP culture wars MORE Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuachuminski