A balance of pragmatism and agendas shaped the U.S.-Russia summit

President Biden and Russian President Putin shake hands in Geneva
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Last week’s summit between Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, and President Joseph Biden was notably different in tone and style, if not necessarily in substance. During Biden’s post-summit press conference, which was separate from Putin’s, he said “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.” Here, Biden is absolutely correct and markedly pragmatic in comparison with previous presidents which either saw into Putin’s soul, sought a “reset” (or overcharge), or praised Russia’s president.

The relationship between Washington and Moscow may well be at one of its lowest points in recent history with the annexation of Crimea, poisoning and imprisonment of political dissidents, intelligence operations across Europe and significant cyber operations, but that this summit occurred should be welcomed, as should Biden’s surface-level pragmatism. Recognizing that this relationship is based on interests and not some more intangible dynamic is a good first step — and it is about recognizing not just Washington’s interests, but Moscow’s as well, as Moscow sees them. Biden is playing the hand he received from previous administrations and working within limited resources to make the relationship more of a simmer and less of a boil — in this he appears thus far successful.

What comes next will be instructive. Biden’s comments about waiting to see in six months’ or a year’s time about changes in Putin’s behavior are perhaps too optimistic. There is little to suggest that the Russian president will moderate his actions, change his tact, or do much, if anything, to address Biden’s list of concerns. Why? For the simple fact that the United States is not in a position to truly affect Putin or Russian behavior: there are too few tools in Washington’s toolbox and relatively little desire in the administration to dedicate much time or attention to Russia.

In the case of the former, more sanctions will achieve little, especially when their efficacy is predicated on proving something nigh unprovable — sanction X led directly to action Y — and when the White House is unwilling to take the escalatory steps of truly sanctioning the Russian economy, which would affect the Russian people more than the Russian state, and which would only strengthen Putin’s hand. Sanctions are good at signaling displeasure at a behavior or warning that should a certain behavior continue there will be superficial consequences, but in reality, their efficacy is limited. This is especially true if those sanctions are not linked to a broader and more cohesive strategy, and they certainly do not represent a deterrent measure.

At a more macro-level, Washington is not in the same strategic position it was twenty or even ten years ago. Its ability to marshal international coalitions, dictate or drive policy agendas, or achieve strategic effects is markedly limited — a fact that is both underappreciated and underrecognized in bilateral relations with Moscow. For all the bluster and talk, Washington declined to fully sanction the nearly completed Nord-Stream 2 pipeline for fear of jeopardizing relations with Germany.

For example, Biden’s warning of “devastating” fallout if Alexei Navalny dies in prison rings markedly hollow. Of course, the president had to raise human rights with Putin (particularly to address allied European concerns and regain some moral high ground), but there is very little Washington could do if Navalny does indeed die in a Russian prison. In this instance it was more political theatre than anything else — necessary to be sure, but ultimately empty should a tragedy occur in the third act.

In the case of the latter, the Biden administration desperately wants to achieve a steady-ish state of relations with Moscow in order to focus on domestic priorities and shift its energies toward China. Prior to arriving in Geneva, Biden sought to advance China as a threat to the G7 and NATO — a particularly difficult sell given Beijing’s in-roads throughout the European continent and the previous administration’s chaotic policy towards China. Russia absolutely matters to European and Asian security and is most certainly not a declining power, despite what some pundits would suggest — Dr. Kathryn Stoner’s “Russia Resurrected” is particularly good at outlining Moscow’s power in its proper, Russian, context. 

Russia could well occupy considerable time and attention from an administration that has neither to spare given its sweeping domestic agenda and spending program, while it is attempting to pivot its attention to strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. The best possible outcome in bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow is, perhaps, stability or stasis, or at least the absence of real conflict.

Here, the return of ambassadors to Washington and Moscow, and the focus on cybersecurity and norms of behavior are particularly instructive. Returning ambassadors is a step towards normalizing diplomatic relations, while relaunching bilateral consultations on cybersecurity will help clarify much needed red-lines and the consequences of crossing those established lines. What enforcement looks like, however, very much remains to be seen. In both cases, stability and pragmatism are the watchwords of the day. Indeed, Putin echoed this fact in his separate press conference saying, “We must agree on rules of behavior in all the spheres that we mentioned today: That’s strategic stability, that’s cybersecurity, that’s resolving questions connected to regional conflicts.”

For Putin’s part, Russia’s strategy appears to be working, at least internationally, if not domestically as well. For all of the ink spilled about whether or not a summit should be held at all given Russia’s recent behaviors, the bilateral meeting went ahead and the two presidents met. Those critics who may have suggested that Putin’s misadventures would lead to isolation were, arguably, wrong. Indeed, Biden’s recognition of Russia as a “great power” is being welcomed in Moscow.

Summits are neither a reward nor is their withholding a punishment. It is about communicating your national interests directly to another party and setting foundations for dialogue. That foundation must, however, be informed by an understanding of your power and interests and that of your counterpart. While Biden’s pragmatism at a macro-level is to be welcomed and is in contrast with his predecessors, it remains to be seen whether the administration truly understands Moscow in Moscow’s context, as well as its ability to shape events. At the very least, the summit was a good first step.

Joshua Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski

Tags Alexei Navalny Mike Rogers Presidency of Joe Biden Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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