Senior-level engagement with Russia is good — if it's realistic

At the beginning of November, President Joseph Biden dispatched CIA Director Ambassador William BurnsWilliam BurnsCIA says 'Havana syndrome' unlikely a result of 'worldwide campaign' by foreign power US providing Ukraine with additional 0M in military aid amid tensions with Russia 'Havana syndrome' suspected in attacks on US diplomats in Switzerland, France: report MORE to Russia, ostensibly to warn Moscow about its recent mobilization on the border of Ukraine, but also to continue the administration’s forward-leaning approach to engagement. This approach is to be welcomed, provided the White House maintains a realistic measure of what it can achieve when it comes to Moscow.

Burns is the fourth senior official to travel to Russia since July. During his visit, Burns spoke with President Putin in a rare phone conversation, which the Kremlin also confirmed. Burns also met with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, who previously served as head of the KGB-successor Federal Security Service (FSB) and his foreign intelligence (SVR) counterpart, Sergey Naryshkin.

Since President Joseph Biden and Putin met in Geneva in June, the United States has sought to engage with Russia more frequently and directly, looking to find areas of cooperation with the Kremlin. In addition to the four senior visits to Moscow, multiple lower-level meetings have taken place in Finland and Switzerland, ostensibly neutral grounds.

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Thus far, these negotiations and discussions have not yielded any tangible results, but to focus on that is to miss the broader point that both administrations are seeking to smooth what has been a particularly contentious relationship as of late. The discussions have taken place against a muddled geopolitical background: NATO expelling Russian diplomats in response to charges of espionage, Moscow suspending its NATO presence, the aforementioned recent build-up of forces near Ukraine’s border and new revelations about Russia’s cyber intelligence efforts.

Indeed, on Ukraine, Burns speaking directly to Putin is an example of the precise type of communication needed in this relationship. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also issued a strong warning on Wednesday. Speaking with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, Blinken said, “Any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of grave concern to the United States.” He added, “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook.” 

Whether Washington has any leverage to dissuade Putin from acting against Ukraine (likely not) if that is indeed his intention (which remains to be seen) is another matter entirely, but if nothing else the message has been delivered and reinforced.

Some critics have argued that this kind of senior-level engagement is rewarding Russia for its malign behavior. To suggest this, however, misses the point of dialogues in the first place. Discussions between states are neither an incentive nor is their withholding a punishment. Discussions such as these are a way of understanding the other party, communicating clear redlines, articulating positions and avoiding miscalculation. Withholding dialogue as a punishment for Moscow’s malign behavior — and there are plenty of reasons for withholding engagement — merely raises the likelihood of a misunderstanding.

Of course, the fact that American officials are traveling to Moscow and talking with Putin and other key officials, such as Patrushev and Naryshkin, is seen as a victory by and for the Kremlin. The benefits of this bilateral engagement far outweigh and offset any potential downside, including the perception of “rewarding” Russia. Here, the binary understanding of “winning” and “losing” needs to be jettisoned in favor of a pragmatic understanding of both dialogues themselves and what can be achieved vis-à-vis Moscow.

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This is, perhaps, the most important point. Washington must be realistic about what the relationship with Russia can and should be. It is clear that the White House wants stability in Eastern Europe when it comes to Russia, so it can pivot its energies toward China and the Indo-Pacific. Yet, the administration can ill-afford to ignore Russia or rush to make policy toward Moscow solely through a lens focused on Beijing.

Burns knows this, saying as much in a 2017 New York Times op-ed:

“I learned that it rarely pays to neglect or underestimate Russia, or display gratuitous disrespect. But I also learned that firmness and vigilance, and a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible, are the best way to deal with the combustible combination of grievance and insecurity that Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia Don't let Putin close his new Iron Curtain Briefing in brief: Biden committed to naming Black woman to Supreme Court MORE embodies.”

One may quibble with the latter portion of that statement about what Putin embodies, but his articulation of how Washington should approach Russia is spot on. These senior-level engagements are the right approach and are a first step.

Washington must also work on the “firmness and vigilance” Burns articulates. Russia knows and understands where Washington wants to place its energies. As such, it can act as a spoiler. Moscow retains the ability to escalate considerably more than Washington’s ability to constrain the Kremlin in response. Strengthening NATO, encouraging their continued defense investment, while reaffirming America’s commitment to Europe and confronting Russia’s malign behavior asymmetrically will go much further than mere sanctions and tit-for-tat expulsions. 

Burns is not wrong in saying, as he did in the same op-ed, that “the reality is that our relationship with Russia will remain competitive, and often adversarial, for the foreseeable future.” Yet, competitive and adversarial do not need to mean hostile. These senior-level engagements, provided they are based on a real and appreciable understanding of what Russia wants and what Washington can offer, are a step in the right direction of reducing tensions and improving bilateral relations. 

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersWashington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Corporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms MORE Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He is also a George Mason University National Security Institute visiting fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.