H-Diplo | ISSF Policy Series
America and the World—The Effects of the Trump Presidency
The Biden Administration and Russia: Digging Out of a Deep Hole
Essay by Robert Legvold, Columbia University
Published on 13 May 2021 | issforum.org
Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii
After President Donald Trump’s four years in office the U.S.-Russian relationship ended where it began: hostile, recriminatory, unproductive, and disengaged. Thus, the Biden administration starts from where roughly the Obama administration left off, only the hole is deeper, because Russia’s cyber intrusions have added a paralyzing dimension to the mix of problems. But where precisely do things stand, and how do Biden and his team appear to assess the challenge? How are they likely to address the challenge, and with what chance of success? And, if recent and prospective U.S.-Russia policy can be improved, how might that be?
The course of U.S.-Russian relations during Trump’s tenure, as in so many other areas of foreign policy, formed a strange, destructive ellipsis. The four years began with gauzy hopes on both sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin and those close to him, who were pleased that they had unexpectedly avoided what they believed would be an aggressively hostile Clinton administration, thought they saw in Trump someone unencumbered by the problems roiling the relationship and persuaded that, as he put it, “getting along with Russia is a good thing.” The newly elected president, for his part, seemed convinced that if the United States backed off, shed some of the sanctions imposed on Russia, and Congress let him deal with Putin, the two would be able to do business, although what precisely that business would entail remained a bit of a mystery.
At the outset, senior administration officials lamented the sorry state of U.S.-Russian relations and stressed the need to turn things around. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate appropriations subcommittee in June 2017, “Our relationship is at the lowest level it’s been at since the Cold War and it’s spiraling down. The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of a relationship. We have to stabilize it and we have to start finding a way back.” Earlier, on his first visit to Moscow in April, he had spoken of the importance of halting the “degradation” of relations and somehow finding a way back on to a more constructive path. The two sides seemingly took the first steps in this direction by agreeing to have their deputy foreign ministers discuss ways to remove so-called “irritants” in the relationship, primarily the harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia and the seizure of Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. They also endorsed the idea of more extensive “strategic stability talks.”
Almost from the start, however, notions of what should change and any real steps to bring it about collided with new sources of friction. A week before Tillerson arrived in Moscow, the United States attacked Syria with cruise missiles in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, and Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, groused that the action “had completely ruined the [U.S.-Russian] relationship.” And so it went, with moments of guarded optimism followed by renewed anger and snap back. In May 2017 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared at the White House with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, smiles all around, and praised the progress they had made in creating “de-escalation zones” in Syria. Then in July the two presidents met for their much-anticipated Helsinki summit, and afterwards Putin enthused, “If we can build a relationship along the lines of our conversation yesterday, then there is every reason to believe we can restore, at least to a certain degree, the level of co-operation we need.”
Less than a month later, Putin ordered the United States to cut its embassy and consular personnel by 755. He was retaliating for the sweeping sanctions that the U.S. Senate had just passed, which were in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 election. The “Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” (CAATSA), as it was entitled, cemented in place a long list of economic penalties and travel restrictions on Russian entities and individuals, not only for the intrusion into the U.S. election, but for Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria as well as Russian human rights abuses and corruption. But the driving force behind the Senate action was the election issue, and its not-so-subtle subtext was a determination to constrain what Senate Democrats and hardline Republicans regarded as Trump’s readiness to give the Russians a pass. U.S.-Russia policy had become U.S domestic politics.
When Trump arrived in the White House, relations with Russia had already cratered because of the crisis that erupted in Ukraine in 2014, and they remained immobilized by a series of stalemates over the war in Syria, Russia’s alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), and the U.S. plans for missile defense. But the election interference issue overwhelmed all else. It pitted much of the Senate against anything Trump might have done to break free from the stalemates, a hypothetical possibility made still more remote by the hardline turn of key members within his own cabinet. Perversely it paralyzed U.S. diplomatic efforts on the core issue of Ukraine, when the president’s morbid obsession with damaging Joe Biden’s chances of running against him in 2020 dragged Ukraine into a tangled story that led to his 2019 impeachment. By then Putin had long accepted that, whatever Trump’s visceral preferences, little would change. When expelling U.S. diplomatic personnel in July 2017 he said: “We were waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, were holding out hope that the situation would change somehow. But it appears that even if it changes someday it will not change soon.” Public opinion certainly suggested as much. A Pew Research Center poll reported that the number of Russians who thought Trump “would do the right thing in world affairs” had dropped from 53 percent in 2017 to 19 percent in 2018, and the number viewing the United States favorably had declined from 41 percent to 26 percent. In 2017, Americans already had a low opinion of Russia, but that number fell even lower from a favorable rating of 29 percent in 2017 to 21 percent a year later.
To suggest, however, that at some level cooperation did not continue would be wrong. Despite their lack of progress on the main issues dividing the two countries, each time the foreign ministers concluded one of their meetings, they would note that the two countries continued to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking. The chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met several times with General Valery Gerasimov, their long-serving counterpart, to discuss, as was reported after General Mark Milley’s session with him in December 2019, “Syria, strategic stability and a variety of other operational and strategic issues to enhance deconfliction, improve understanding and reduce risk.” The U.S. and Russian heads of security services continued to meet, and within the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), the two governments worked together on the nexus between anti-terrorist efforts and securing nuclear materials. American and Russian astronauts still reached the International Space Station aboard a Russian spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In the summer of 2020, the United States sent two-hundred ventilators to Russia to aid in the struggle against COVID-19. The American fast food chain KFC even partnered with Russia’s 3D Bioprinting Solutions, a biotech research firm, to develop the world’s first plant-based chicken nuggets.
Nonetheless, from a larger perspective the two sides were like a truck attempting to climb an icy hill, wheels spinning, slowly sliding backwards. The election issue engulfed the relationship and turned Congress into an alternate author of U.S. Russia policy. Its policy agenda dealt almost exclusively with Russia’s malign behavior, at the center of which were Russia’s cyber intrusions into U.S. domestic politics. Its principal policy tool was sanctions. In addition to the set of sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Russia over its seizure of Crimea and military intervention in Donbas, halfway into Trump’s first year Congress tacked on the CAATSA sanctions, and followed this by pushing for a fresh layer of sanctions after each new offending Russian action. In March 2018 after the attempt by Russian military intelligence to kill the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a chemical nerve agent, members pressed the administration to sanction Russia for violating the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, and, when the administration resisted implementing the second-stage penalties required by the law, ratcheted up the pressure. In August 2018, six Democratic and Republican senators introduced the Defending American Security Aggression Act (DASKA) that would impose what one of its sponsors, Senator Lindsey Graham, described as “crushing sanctions” forcing Russia to stop “meddling in the US electoral process, [halt] cyber-attacks on US infrastructure, [remove] Russia from Ukraine, and [cease] efforts to create chaos in Syria.” In December 2019, Congress passed the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA) that extended sanctions aimed at blocking Nord-Stream 2, Russia’s gas pipeline project with Germany.
In fact over the last two years of the Trump administration, Russia faced not two, but three U.S. Russia policies. In addition to the president’s rather rubbery inclinations and the sanctions-saturated approach of Congress, other portions of the administration had still different preoccupations—preoccupations that drove the relationship deeper into the hole. Russia’s alleged violations of the INF treaty had been a contentious issue from early in Barack Obama’s first term in office, but, with the arrival of John Bolton as national security advisor in spring 2018, the fate of the treaty took a grim turn, and with it the prospects for arms control of any kind. By October 2018, Bolton, who had long been opposed to the treaty, persuaded the president, over resistance elsewhere in the administration, to abandon it. Only the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) agreement remained of the patch quilt nuclear arms-control regime negotiated over the fifty years beginning with the first Strategic Arms Limitations Talks Agreement (SALT I) in 1972, and its five-year extension before its February 2021 expiration was left in doubt throughout the remainder of the Trump presidency. To complete the dismantling of arms control as a guardrail, in November 2020 the administration withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, the arrangement allowing Russia and NATO members to carry out aerial surveillance of each side’s military activity, a decision it took without consulting the United States’ European allies.
The thrust of the three policies, however, converged around a single fundamental strategic proposition, one that sharply distinguished the perspectives early in Obama’s presidency from those at the end of Trump’s, and that set the framework within which the new administration would formulate its Russia policy. As reflected in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and in the glow of the so-called “reset” of relations, the Obama administration began by stressing working with Russia to enhance strategic stability and jointly to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons because “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.” By 2018 all parts of the government, including most of Congress, had come to a very different assessment. The new nuclear posture review asserted that there had been “a rapid deterioration of the threat environment since 2010,” and a “return to great power competition,” with “potential adversaries,” in particular, Russia and China, “expand[ing] and moderniz[ing] their nuclear forces” in ways designed to degrade the U.S. nuclear deterrent and its ability to defend regional allies. Both Russia and China, it was said, and the claim reflected a view that had congealed in Congress and across much of the media, have “made clear they seek to substantially revise the post-Cold War international order.”
Trump then introduced a further twist. Fixated on his increasingly hostile attitude toward China, by 2018 he was insisting that China, not Russia, was the primary problem. In his September 2018 UN address he singled out China for “attempting to interfere” in the 2018 midterm elections, and, a week later, Vice President Mike Pence sharpened the charge: “’As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across the country’.” When asked in a CBS television interview whether he thought Putin was involved in assassinations and poisoning, Trump responded: “Probably is, yeah. But I rely on them, it’s not in our country. And I think, frankly, China is a bigger problem.” If Trump now saw China as the United States’ primary adversary and Russia as something less—which his aggressive messaging together with the push to decouple the U.S. economy from China’s suggest that he did—this constituted a notable contrast with the apparent view of Trump’s successor. When pressed during the 2020 electoral campaign, Biden characterized China as a “serious competitor” and Russia as an “opponent.” He would later re-characterize China as “our most serious competitor.” But as he said on other occasions, he saw Russia as the “biggest threat to America,” because of its efforts to undermine U.S. democracy and “break up” its alliances.
The Biden Administration’s Starting Point
Unlike any other post-Cold War U.S. president, Joe Biden began his administration by making plain that no “reset” of the U.S.-Russian relationship would be in the offing. Along with the rest of his team, he, the herald of the original Obama-era “reset,” reflected the qualitative turn that relations between the two countries had taken over the prior six years. In Washington or Moscow, neither leadership harbored hopes that the frictions in the relationship could be easily surmounted and the relationship put back on a constructive path.
When Putin delayed congratulating Biden on his election victory, he dismissed the damage this might do by saying, “You can’t spoil a spoiled relationship. It is already spoiled.” His congratulatory message, when it came, perfunctorily repeated what had become a standard phrasing. The two countries had a “special responsibility for global security and stability” and their cooperation, if it was “based on the principles of equality and mutual respect,” would be in the interest of their two countries and the “entire international community.”
Biden, in his first call to Putin, was blunter: “I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens—are over.” The other side of his message was more accommodative. In the months before the election Biden and his people had signaled their support for an extension of the New START agreement, and they did so ahead of the president’s telephone conversation with Putin. The two also agreed to “explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues.” Both parts of Biden’s message foreshadowed the likely outline of the administration’s forthcoming Russia policy. The formula was not new: “cooperate where we can/push back where we must.” Virtually every U.S. administration, tracing back to that of Bill Clinton, had embraced some version of this stance, particularly when relations hit a rough patch.
In the case of the Biden administration, if this were to be the guide for future policy, it would face important challenges and suffer from significant lacunae. The administration referred to the second half of this two-sided approach as “holding Russia to account” when its actions threaten U.S. or allied interests. The challenge was how to do this with success, something that had largely eluded prior administrations. The test came early. Biden ordered the new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, to conduct a comprehensive intelligence review of the extent of Russian interference in the 2020 election, the months-long hacking of government and corporate computer networks that was purportedly the work of the Russian foreign intelligence agency, the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the alleged Russian payment of bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
By April, the intelligence reviews confirmed that Russian government agencies had interfered in the 2020 election as well as hacked into Solar Winds software and U.S. infrastructure. Earlier in March, the administration concluded that Russian agents had poisoned Navalny with a chemical nerve agent. In response it expanded U.S. sanctions against Russia under the 1991 U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, sanctioned Russian governmental officials who were said to be responsible, and imposed export restrictions on materials that could be used to produce biological and chemical weapons. Now, as Biden had warned Putin that his administration would, it added another round of sanctions, the most serious of which blocked U.S. financial institutions from purchasing newly issued ruble-denominated bonds on the primary market.
Three months into Biden’s tenure, the way the administration intended to go about a dual-track Russia policy was coming into clearer view. The penalties announced in March and April honored his warning that Russia would be “held to account” for its misdeeds, but their nature and the manner in which they were delivered suggested that the administration was serious about pursuing the other side of the policy. The April sanctions followed an April 13 telephone conversation with Putin, the tone of which differed fundamentally from the January call. Biden assured his Russian counterpart that the United States wanted “a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with U.S. interests,” proposed a near-term presidential summit, and suggested that the focus should be on a “strategic stability dialogue.” Coming two days after this call the announced sanctions received a predictably irate response from Moscow and a tit-for-tat expulsion of U.S. diplomats. Indeed, Russia’s ill-humor in this case appeared to many observers as simply the next angry stage after Russia’s recall of its ambassador from Washington a month earlier in response to Biden’s frank, if undiplomatic, characterization in a television interview of Putin “as a killer.”
The April sanctions, however, came with a dual message. That the administration would impose costs for malign Russian behavior was one; the other signaled a determination to act with restraint in order to avoid adding to existing tensions. When announcing the sanctions Biden and senior White House officials went out of their way to stress that the measures they had taken were “measured and proportionate,” that they could have inflicted harsher penalties, but chose not to because “we do not desire a downward spiral,” and that they did not want “to be in an escalatory cycle with Russia.” After Washington acted and Moscow reacted, attention shifted to preparing for a June summit.
The outsized role of sanctions, however, was and remained a complex burden on Biden’s Russia policy. By the time Biden entered office, Russia was laboring under five different layers of U.S. sanctions that had targeted 900 individuals, a vastly larger number of Russian officials and entities than was ever sanctioned during the Cold War, and that applied to a range of offending Russia behavior from Ukraine to interference in U.S. elections, from Syria to the Skripal poisoning, from the hacking of U.S. infrastructure to human rights violations. This omnidirectional overworked instrumentality needs to be rationalized; priorities need to be set; criteria for assessing success need to be established; and the conditionality for easing sanctions needs to be refined.
Of the four concerns in Biden’s first order of business, two arguably warranted the use of sanctions. The Navalny poisoning and subsequent imprisonment did produce a new wave of sanctions focused on a limited number of individuals and scientific institutes that were said to be involved in the development of chemical agents. Above all they carefully matched those already imposed by the EU and were clearly intended to underscore the administration’s commitment to harmonize its Russia policy with that of its European allies. The other case, the issue of bounties paid to kill U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, had it been confirmed, might also have justified the use of sanctions, but the national intelligence review could not with high confidence do so, and no sanctions were imposed.
The other two offenses featured in the charge to Haines illustrate the thicket of problems surrounding an indiscriminate approach to sanctions. Russia’s election interference, except for tampering with the voting process itself, which falls into the category of hacking the U.S. infrastructure, is more effectively countered by strengthening the country’s defenses against it. Enhancing U.S. “resilience” against a range of threats constitutes a major administration commitment, and the response in this case belongs there. Indeed, the administration did follow through with a series of steps designed to stiffen American defenses against cyber intrusions into elections, but then reflexively fell back on sanctions as a necessary complement. The more serious matter of the Solar Winds hacks and the penetration into the computer networks of federal agencies and major corporate entities crosses the threshold into the sphere of national security—particularly where it blurs the line between espionage and implanting destructive malware.
As a national security threat, this parallels the threat that Russian military power, particularly nuclear weapons, poses, and, as negotiating arms control measures and confidence building measures (CBMS), along with strengthened defenses, are part of the response in that case, so should they be a critical part of the response in this case. While not easily done, because designing verifiable constraints in this area is difficult, the consequences of a cyber-attack of this nature and scale as well as the reality that both countries are vulnerable to it should create grounds for the two governments to at least try. Sanctions in this case make no more sense than using sanctions to dissuade Russian defense planners from going forward with the modernization of Russia’s nuclear weapons systems or from embracing a nuclear strategy that the United States finds menacing. While recognizing that sanctions alone will be inadequate, the administration seems unready to go this far. Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, warned that the response “will include a mix of tools seen and unseen, and it will not simply be sanctions.”
Sanctions, therefore, seem likely to remain both a central factor in the Biden administration’s Russia policy and an albatross. Little evidence suggests that the administration is any readier than its predecessors to distinguish between the pain that sanctions inflict and the change in behavior that they do or do not bring about. The pain is obvious. A November 2018 Bloomberg Economics study claimed that U.S. and EU sanctions may have cut Russian economic growth over the four years after the eruption of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis by six percent. The month before, Alexei Kudrin, the head of Russia’s Audit Chamber, warned that further sanctions would make it impossible for Russia to meet many of the investment goals that Putin had set for his 2018-2024 presidency. Evidence of a shift in Russia behavior, however, is slim to nonexistent.
The albatross is the inflexibility built into the sanctions themselves, nearly all of which are fixed in law with no clear path to their removal, thus denying the president the ability to invoke, adjust or ease them as he sees fit to serve specific diplomatic objectives. Compounding this handicap, policymakers and politicians have given little thought to how the often-vague conditionality for lifting sanctions could be sharpened and then employed to create positive incentives, rather than simply inflicting punishment.
The Ukrainian imbroglio offers a good illustration of how a potentially more productive approach to sanctions could intersect with the needed reframing of a major source of tension in U.S.-Russian relations. If the Biden administration, as appears likely, hews to past policy—insisting that Russia execute its part of the Minsk II agreement, the February 2015 agreement that set the terms for ending the civil war in Donbas, assuring Ukrainian officials of U.S. support, providing Ukraine with modest levels of economic and military aid, and pledging to keep sanctions in place or add to them as long as Russia does not change course—Ukraine will remain a permanent roadblock on the path to managing the conflicted U.S.-Russian relationship more safely. Rather than making the full implementation of Minsk II the prerequisite for easing the Russia-U.S./EU conflict over Ukraine, the Biden administration would be wiser to shift the framework. Elements of the Minsk process are essential, but the prospect that the agreement itself will any time soon be fulfilled grows steadily more remote. It is better, therefore, that key parts of the agreement, such as a secure ceasefire, greater Ukrainian access to its border with Russia, restraint in Moscow’s support of the separatists, and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance to the region, be folded into a larger objective.
Logic suggests that it is not in Russia’s or Ukraine’s interest or that of the United States, and even less the Europeans to see the bitter hostility between the two countries continue to deepen and then harden into a permanent locus of tension. Admittedly, logic may not be a feasible guide when emotions on both sides dominate decision-making. Still, the reality is that a friction-laden, crisis-prone relationship with Ukraine’s first and Russia’s second most important neighbor guarantees a loss of flexibility in critical dimensions of each country’s foreign policy. To avert this, the goal should be to normalize relations despite the ongoing underlying conflicts. Normalization should focus on assuring Ukrainian access to the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, establishing CBMs that give transparency and predictability to each side’s military actions, facilitating rather than blocking water supplies to Crimea, repairing desirable industrial and economic ties that were severed over the last several years, dampening the information war each conducts against the other, and relinking multiple agencies of the two governments in dialogues aimed at finding areas of potential cooperation. The key parts of the Minsk agreement mentioned above should figure both as a necessary component and a potential beneficiary of the process, but not as its precondition. In this context, the reconceived role for U.S. and EU sanctions should be to encourage these steps and reward them when they are taken.
As the other half of a difficult juggling act—countering while cooperating with Russia—the administration’s readiness to engage on issues of vital importance to both countries, beginning with the challenge of managing their nuclear relationship, bears what hope there may be for a more positive turn in U.S.-Russian relations during Biden’s four years in office. Having bought time by extending New START, the administration seems ready to begin exploring the shape that a follow-on phase of nuclear arms control, the first in ten years, might take. This will be complex, because the parameters of a new arrangement—the kinds of weapons systems to be limited, the qualitative, no longer merely quantitative, metrics used, the relevant domains, including new frontiers such as space and cyber, and the range of relevant parties—have all changed. And the United States and Russia have different priorities and concerns with respect to many of these elements. Hope rests on the apparent readiness of both leaderships to take the issue seriously, even if they remain wary of how willing the other side is to search for common ground.
Salvaging the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the imperiled agreement to constrain Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program, constitutes a second key area of possible U.S.-Russian collaboration. Success will not be easy. But, if the mismatch between the U.S. and Iranian opening bids can be reconciled and the necessary adjustments to the original agreement made, progress is possible. That, however, will only occur with Russia’s collaboration, something the administration appears ready to actively seek.
The challenge posed by climate change forms the third, and suddenly prominent area of potential U.S.-Russian cooperation. Given the priority the Biden administration has assigned this issue, and the belated but rising concern of the Russian leadership with its consequences for Russia, it could well assume special prominence in the relationship. When in his first days in office, John Kerry, the administration’s special envoy for climate, telephoned Lavrov, his former counterpart as foreign minister, to discuss the significance of the U.S. return to the Paris Climate Agreement, potential areas of cooperation within the Arctic Council during the two years Russia will hold the Council’s chairmanship, and preparations for the November UN Climate Change Conference, a fundamentally new area of opportunity seemed at hand.
Constraints and Obstacles
The Biden administration will not have a free hand when dealing with Russia. Congress intends to stand as a warden overseeing policy, not the least because for members Russia’s intrusion into U.S. domestic politics has a special immediacy. Hardline Republicans, whose party holds half of the Senate seats, will watch for any sign that the Democratic president wants to compromise with Russia and then resist any arms control deal he negotiates. Leading Democrats on the key House and Senate committees, who are preoccupied with sanctioning Russia for its misbehavior, are not likely to have much interest in testing where give and take might produce progress. The media, which is steeped in a tenaciously grim view of Russia, offers no refuge for ideas on how to improve the relationship. Adding to the list of impediments, at a time when the new administration seeks to restore cooperation with European allies, EU relations with Russia have sharply deteriorated over the Navalny affair.
In the end the assumptions underlying the administration’s approach to Russia constitute the most serious constraint. With notable uniformity, senior echelons of the administration view the essence of the Russian challenge to be the nature of the Russian regime, with Putin as its embodiment and sovereign. His regime, which is seen as thoroughly corrupt and increasingly authoritarian, is judged to be motivated almost wholly by a determination to preserve the system that Putin and the oligarchs who surround him have built. Its foreign policy, particularly its aggression against neighbors, efforts to disrupt U.S. alliances, and undermine the American democratic system, has in their view unfolded as a function of this overarching preoccupation. In an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018, Biden summarized this view crisply, arguing that Russian actions were “just basically about a kleptocracy protecting itself.” Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Biden administration, argued in Foreign Affairs that Putin’s animus toward democracy owed to his fear of its contaminating effect on Russia, which led to his aggression in Ukraine, and, when his actions were weakly resisted by the United States and European allies, he was emboldened to try to “corrode their political systems and social cohesion from the inside.”
An alternative view does not question that a first-order concern of Putin and his government is to preserve the system they control, but assumes that this impulse is not the only or perhaps even the decisive one driving their external behavior. Those of this view are more convinced that Putin and key policymakers act primarily in pursuit of a set of foreign policy and national security goals that have legitimacy with dominant portions of the Russian elite and public, whether or not they are viewed as legitimate by the outside world. Crucially, they believe that these goals are shaped as much if not more by developments in Russia’s international environment and interactions with key players than by the need to protect a “kleptocratic regime.” The headwind in Washington, in Congress and in the new administration, however, makes it unlikely that this perspective will gain much traction.
At a deeper level, a dual void that is typical of badly damaged relationships, both as cause and effect, distinguishes the first from the second perspective. It has a direct bearing on the likely direction of the administration’s Russia policy. When relations are as hostile as those between the United States and Russia, a critical casualty on both sides is inevitably the shrunken capacity for empathy and introspection. As relations deteriorate each side makes less effort to put itself in the other’s shoes and puts more effort into ignoring its own role in the deterioration. The assumptions underlying recent U.S. policy, which are matched by those driving Russia policy and potentially those of the Biden administration, suffer from that deficit.
That deficit in turn accentuates the concrete effects that one perspective versus the other have on policy. If one believes that the hard core of the challenge is the nature of the Russian regime, the tendency will be to resist engaging the Russian side in ways that entail significant mutual concessions, other than in limited areas, such nuclear arms, until the nature of the Russian regime changes or, at minimum, the regime changes its behavior. If the assumptions underlying the alternative perspective prevail, there will likely be a greater readiness to engage on most of the key issues without preconditions, wagering that the better chance for a shift in Russian behavior will only come in the course of an interaction that addresses and mitigates the conflicts dividing the two countries.
Those of the first view are likely to have limited expectations for progress other than perhaps in the area of nuclear arms limitations and a revised JCPOA as long as the Putin regime remains in power and unchanged. While acknowledging the need for dialogue, they are likely to doubt that a more ambitious “strategic dialogue” that attempts to get at the basic sources of mistrust, an honest and constructive exploration of policy differences, and an earnest effort to identify where and how conflicting interests might be alleviated has much of a chance. And they are likely to assign as a priority enhanced efforts to counter Russia’s current and prospective malign behavior, particularly in so-called asymmetric and non-kinetic warfare.
Those of the second view are likely to ascribe a pragmatism to the Putin regime, and assume that it is worth attempting to find common ground on major issues, such as reversing the trend toward the remilitarization of European security, including partial progress in the Donbas standoff, negotiated constraints on mutual cybersecurity concerns, nuclear risk reduction, and managing the nexus between energy, climate change, and the securitization of the Arctic. They are likely to believe that a strategic dialogue must be part of any effort that hopes to change the current trajectory of relations, and that neither side has seriously tested its feasibility despite past half-hearted attempts in this direction, including in the last phases of the Trump administration. And they are likely to support steps to strengthen the U.S. capacity to deal with information and hybrid warfare, but not to assign them a priority that blocks or preempts the larger foreign policy agenda.
The list could be extended. There are also other harms to the Biden administration’s emerging policy agenda that are inherent in the framework guiding its nascent Russia policy. The corruption and authoritarian reflexes that are thought to drive Russia behavior also raise the possibility, in the minds of the president and his advisers, that this might be a vulnerability. One way to pressure Putin’s regime, they assume, is by the United States engaging Russian civil society, exposing the regime’s malign behavior, and laying out what a more constructive course might deliver. Biden earlier stressed that “We’ve got to make this about a conflict between the Russian kleptocracy and oligarchy and the Russian people.” Others made the point more softly. “Washington and its allies,” Nuland argued, should “resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.”
The problem is that the United States has long ceased to be either a model or a tutor for the bulk of the Russian population. During the Putin era, polling has regularly shown that most Russians believe that the United States does not act to help but rather to hurt their country; that it is aggressive and interventionist; and that its push for democracy and human rights masks a more subversive purpose. More recently, the turmoil and assault on democratic standards in the United States have further compromised U.S. moral authority in Russian eyes. If the administration wishes to affect the Russian public attitude, it will have to alter its focus and form, shifting from exposing the evils of the Putin regime to holding the regime to its own standards as expressed in Russia’s laws and constitution and as proclaimed in the boasts of its leadership. And rather than imagining its engagement with Russian civil society as a mechanism for transforming the Russian political system, it would be more productive to think in terms of a dialogue that is focused on what the Americans want the U.S.-Russian relationship to become.
The second potential harm stems from a curious paradox. While placing Russia first among the countries threatening the integrity of the U.S. political process and the stability of its alliances, Biden sees Russia as a weak and declining country. “I would not want,” he said at one point, “to be in a position…of having to lead Russia,” a country that is in “enormous decline.” Notwithstanding its formidable nuclear arsenal, its “efficacy,” its “capacity is de minimis compared to ours.” As he wrote with his co-author Michael Carpenter, “The regime projects an aura of invincibility that masks the shallow roots of its public support, particularly among younger, urban and educated Russians.”
Seeing Russia in this light will likely warp U.S. policy in two ways. First, the image of Russia as weak but threatening will incline the administration to care less about cooperating with a crippled Putin regime and more about cracking down on it. Balance in a policy that sets out to combine a search for common ground with the imperative to “hold Russia to account” will be lost. Second, a diminished Russia will make China a policy priority to the derogation of Russia as a policy concern. The two characterizations will tend to keep U.S. policy toward the two countries in separate silos, when increasingly policy toward them should be made in tandem. As Russia and China, the two other most important global military powers, draw closer together, creating a challenge for U.S. policy greater than either alone, Washington needs to break out of the bilateralism that currently hobbles policy and think trilaterally. Nearly all the issues that are central to the U.S.-Russian relationship—from managing nuclear weapons to weighing more broadly the threats to strategic stability, from addressing cyber security concerns to dealing with terrorism—have a Chinese dimension. The norms the United States believes Russia is undermining are the same norms China is said to undermine. Third countries that are hostile to the United States and supported by Russia are often supported by China as well. The outcomes Russia seeks in international fora are regularly the same outcomes sought by China.
Ignoring the increasingly trilateral dimension that the Russia-China challenge poses adds to the potential lacunae in the administration’s Russia policy. So does a second critical feature. As a presidential candidate Biden pledged his commitment to rallying democratic countries to a common purpose, and to reinforce this effort by convening them in formal summits. In office he has framed the challenge more dramatically. Speaking to the February 2021 Munich Security Conference, he warned that the international setting has reached an “inflection point.” He described this as on two levels. On one, the United States and its democratic allies need urgently to “renew” their weakened economic and political institutions and unleash their capacity for innovation, while girding themselves to compete with and, where necessary, counter the authoritarian alternative. On the other level, all countries, particularly the major powers, must come together to address the twenty-first century’s “existential crises” of climate change and current and future heath pandemics. The potential lacuna in this case exists where and how the two levels are to be reconciled.
Depending on whether the balance between rejuvenating democracy and fending off autocracy tilts in one direction rather than the other and whether meeting the transcendent global challenges remains a priority or fades under the pressure of intervening events, very different trends in U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations await. The sense during the new administration’s early weeks that its principals, beginning with the president, see the internal threats to democracy as primary and the urgency of dealing with the global threat of climate change as overriding suggests that the harshest aspects of the atmosphere surrounding relations between the two countries can slowly soften, notwithstanding the narrow lens through which the administration views the Putin regime. Still, significant additional roadblocks stand in the way.
Primary among them is the failure that has plagued U.S. policy toward Russia and Russian policy toward the United States throughout the post-Soviet period—the failure of U.S. and Russian leadership to focus on, perhaps even to recognize, the large stakes each has in the relationship. Over the years, as the relationship ebbed and flowed, with each new downturn adding cumulative damage, leaders in both countries concentrated their efforts on removing or working around the immediate sources of tension that constantly interrupted whatever progress had been achieved. The working assumption that, for all the setbacks, the two sides, if they kept at it, would be able to build a more durable partnership gradually dimmed, until it vanished entirely during the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. The early hopes of the 1990s and the chastened expectations of the 2000s gave way to a resigned acceptance that the relationship was and would remain for the foreseeable future hostile and friction-ridden. As each side focused on check-mating the other and the conflict deepened, the most that either aimed for was a managed competition that avoided a violent explosion. As hopes faded and, with the rise of other preoccupations, the importance of each country for the other shrank, both leaderships tended to treat the deteriorated relationship as affordable wreckage.
It is not. From the start, Washington and Moscow should have recognized the developments that rendered the post-Cold War nuclear world immensely more complex and dangerous, and, as the two dominant nuclear powers, should have dedicated themselves to working together to help design new mechanisms and controls for managing this new nuclear environment. Instead, by the turn of the century they were dismantling the major arms control agreements that they had laboriously negotiated over the prior four decades. Some in the Biden administration fully understand the daunting challenge posed by the new technologies that blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, lower the nuclear threshold, and imperil existing notions of nuclear deterrence; the new frontiers, such as cyber and artificial intelligence, that require fundamentally new ways of conceiving strategic stability (that is, the circumstances necessary to reduce the likelihood that nuclear weapons will actually be used); and a new landscape that multiplied the number of states capable of launching a nuclear conflagration. But, while the president himself has recommitted the United States to exploring next steps beyond the New START treaty, it is not clear that he defines the challenge on the scale required or that he will press U.S. defense planners to break free from their current nuclear plans and doctrines. If he does, the question is whether Russia’s leadership will as well.
Three other stakes have fallen victim to the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations, and it seems unlikely that the Biden administration will rescue them. The idea of “a Europe whole, free and at peace” figured often and prominently in the optimistic words of U.S. and other western leaders as the dust settled from the Soviet Union’s collapse. Before the end came, the countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in November 1990 assembled in Paris and signed a declaration that proclaimed, “The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended. We declare that henceforth our, relations will be founded on respect and co-operation.” Over the next decade U.S., European, and Russian leaders regularly affirmed their intention to create a Euro-Atlantic security community “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” in which neither the use of force, nor the threat of its use, would be a means of settling conflicts and in which the focus would be on the common threats faced by all.
Instead, the United States, its NATO allies, and Russia concluded the next fifteen years by reconstituting a new military standoff stretching from the Arctic across the fragile portions of Central Europe to the Black Sea. When Biden entered the White House, the luminous goal of the early 1990s was long out of reach, but his administration and its counterpart in Moscow had a choice to make. They could either carry on as they were, eyeing the military steps taken by the other side, beefing up their responses, focusing on the likely range of contingencies for which their forces would be used, and readying themselves for that moment. Or they could focus on reversing course, restoring the buffers that once lessened the risk that what they were preparing for would come to pass, and rendering Europe an area of relative stability, rather than a key region where the post-Cold War peace could shatter.
Similarly, a third decisive stake swirls around the area that once formed the Soviet Union. The U.S.-Russian interaction in the soft and unstable cortex that surrounds Russia and the still more unstable concentric circle beyond has been the primary source of tension between the two countries and a principal location for their current cold war. If they are to shift this dynamic, they will need to focus as they have not before on a path to achieving a modus vivendi that is built around compatible and, where possible, coordinated policies that are anchored on promoting stable change and mutual security in and around this Eurasian core.
The fourth stake brings us back to the fate of the United States, China, and Russia triangle. The stability of the international order in the first half of the twenty-first century will ride on whether intensified strategic rivalry between the United States and the other two countries contaminates the disruptions that will inevitably erupt in international politics or, worse, lead to the complete loss of control and war. To avert this peril, the three countries must do more than approach the tensions in their relationship with caution. They must do more than resist the current temptation to approach their conflicts in ways that are designed to disadvantage the country in the triangle that they most want to disadvantage. They will need to challenge their growing belief that this troika is ineluctably at the center of renewed great power strategic rivalry and dedicate themselves to subordinating their antagonisms to areas where their cooperation is essential.
The fifth stake, the existential threat posed by climate change, appears to be very much on the Biden administration’s horizon, in contrast to that of its predecessor. If, as it should, the administration treats Russia as crucial in addressing the challenge, and if Russia rises to the urgency felt by the administration on this issue, the effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship could be substantial. Combined with a readiness on both countries’ part to regain control over a nuclear world that is in danger of spinning out of control, the damage done by the unattended challenges that have haunted the relationship over much of the post-Soviet period and that led to its collapse may be reduced.
In short, there are traces of possible change that might allow the two countries to stop digging and begin climbing out of the hole they are in. But, at the same time, the prisms through which each views the other, the continuing deficit of empathy and introspection on both sides, and the counterproductive effects from the defects in each country’s foreign policy ensure that the process, if it begins, will not be easy. Biden is correct; history has arrived at an inflection point. It matters greatly which will prevail—the possibilities or the obstacles.
Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. His most recent book is Return to Cold War (Polity, 2016).
© Copyright 2021 The Authors
 Steve Holland, “Trump Says He Thinks He Could Have a Good Relationship with Putin,” Reuters, April 3, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-russia-putin/trump-says-he-thinks-he-could-have-a-good-relationship-with-putin-idUSKCN1HA2D8.
 Fiona Hill, who was in Trump’s White House, has since argued that Trump did have serious, if largely unrealizable aims: first among them an agreement that would eliminate the nuclear menace as he remembered it from the 1970s and 1980s, but also to rally Russia to the U.S. side against both Iran and China. “Transition Series: How to Deal with Russia,” Virtual Meetings, Council on Foreign Relations, February 22, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/event/transition-2021-series-how-deal-russia.
 “Hearings to Review the FY 2018 Budget for the US Department of State,” US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, 13 June 2017, https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/hearings/hearing-to-review-the-fy2018-budget-for-the-us-department-of-state.
 David Sanger, “Tillerson and Putin Find Little More than Disagreement in Meeting,” The New York Times, April 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/world/europe/tillerson-putin-lavrov-russia-syria.html.
 Guy Chazan and Demetri Sevastopulo, “Putin Praises Trump and Hails New Era of Cooperation,” Financial Times, 8 July 2017.
 During the May 2017 White House meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, Trump had reportedly said that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the U.S. did the same in other countries. (Shane Harris, Josh Dawehy, and Ellen Nakashima, “Trump told Russians that Interference Not a Concern,” The Washington Post, September 28, 2019, p. A1.) Two years later when asked by reporters at the Osaka G-20 summit whether he would press Putin on election interference, he responded, “’Yes, of course, I will,’ drawing a laugh from Putin. Trump then turned to Putin. ‘Don’t meddle in the election, please,’ Trump said.” (Roberta Rampton, “Trump, with a Wag, Asks Putin Not to Meddle in U.S. Elections,” Reuters, June 28, 2019.)
 Max Seddon and David J. Lynch, “Putin Orders Drastic Reduction in US Diplomatic Presence in Russia, Financial Times, 30 July 2017.
 Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, et.al., “Trump’s International Ratings Remain Low, Especially Among Key Allies,” Pew Research Center: Global Attitudes and Trends, October 1, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/10/01/trumps-international-ratings-remain-low-especially-among-key-allies/.
 Jacob Pushter, “6 Charts on How Russians and Americans See Each Other,” Pew Research Center: Facttank News in the Numbers, October 4, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/04/6-charts-on-how-russians-and-americans-see-each-other/.
 “Top U.S., Russian Military Chiefs Meet to Discuss Syria, Avoiding Conflicts,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 19, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-russian-military-chiefs-meet-in-switzerland-on-syria-avoiding-conflicts/30333227.html.
 Press Release, Office of Senator Lindsey Graham, “Graham, Menendez, Gardner, Cardin, McCain, Shaheen Introduce Hard-Hitting Russia Sanctions Package,” August 2, 2018, https://www.lgraham.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=E4AC5E4C-EFD0-4F25-9808-745E1737EF65. (Although voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senate and House leaders, with White House support, dragged their feet on bringing the legislation to a full House or Senate vote).
 United States Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review Report, April 2010, iv.
 United States Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, February 2018, 6–12.
 Demetri Sevastopulo and Hannah Kuchler, “Mike Pence Accuses China of Anti-Trump Meddling in Midterm Elections,” Financial Times. October 4, 2018.
 Lesley Stahl, “President Trump on Christine Blasey Ford, His Relationships with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un and More,” CBS 60 Minutes, October 15, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-full-interview-60-minutes-transcript-lesley-stahl-2018-10-14/.
 Orion Rummier, “Biden Calls Russia an ‘Opponent,’ Sees China as a ‘Serious Competitor’,” Axios, September 18, 2020, https://www.axios.com/biden-russia-china-trump-cnn-town-hall-c4489bf5-bf1c-491f-8327-493367f769bb.html.
 Reuters staff, “Kremlin Accuses Joe Biden of Spreading Hatred of Russia with Threat Talk, Reuters, October 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-kremlin/kremlin-accuses-joe-biden-of-spreading-hatred-of-russia-with-threat-talk-idUSKBN27B13B.
 “Putin Says No Hidden Motive in Not Congratulating Biden,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, November 22, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-says-no-hidden-motive-in-not-congratulating-biden/30963116.html Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, offered a particularly dour assessment: “We obviously do not expect anything good. It would be strange to expect anything good from people, many of whom have built their careers on Russophobia, and slinging mud at my country. Therefore, if they show their own, so-to-say, vested interest in having a meaningful discussion with us, not by means of slogans but a substantive conversation, we will always be ready for that.” (“Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: Russia Should Shift to a Policy of Deterrence and Engagement in Relations with the U.S.,” Interfax, December 25, 2020, https://interfax.com/newsroom/exclusive-interviews/70696/.
 “Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World,” The White House, Speech at the U.S. Department of State, February 4, 202, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/remarks-by-president-biden-on-americas-place-in-the-world/.
 David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes, “Biden Orders Sweeping Assessment of Russian Hacking, Even While Renewing Nuclear Treaty,” The New York Times, January 21, 2021.
 “Readout of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia,” The White House: Briefing Room, April 13, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/13/readout-of-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-call-with-president-vladimir-putin-of-russia-4-13/.
 Isabelle Khurshudyan, “Putin Responds to Biden Comment that He’s a Killer: ‘I Know You Are, but What am I?’,” Washington Post, March 18, 2021.
“Remarks by President Biden on Russia,” The White House: Briefing Room, April 15, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/04/15/remarks-by-president-biden-on-russia; “Background Press Call by Senior Officials on Russia,” The White House: Briefing Room, April 15, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/04/15/background-press-call-by-senior-administration-officials-on-russia/.
 Vivian Salama, “Intelligence Was Limited that Russia Offered Bounties on U.S. Troops, White House Says,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/intelligence-was-limited-that-russia-offered-bounties-on-u-s-troops-white-house-says-11618522983.
 Ellen Nakashima, “Sanctions Loom Against Russia for Cyberattacks,” The Boston Globe, February 24, 2021, p. A2.
 Bloomberg, “Here’s One Measure that Shows Sanctions on Russia are Working,” The Moscow Times, November 16, 2018.
 “New Sanctions Risk Wrecking Putin’s 6-year Plan, Kudrin Warns, The Moscow Times, October 10, 2018.
 “Foreign Affairs Issue Launch with Former Vice President Joe Biden,” Council on Foreign Relations Meeting, January 23, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/event/foreign-affairs-issue-launch-former-vice-president-joe-biden.
 Victoria Nuland, “Pinning Down Putin: How a Confident America Should Deal with Russia,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2020), 97.
 Thomas E. Graham, “Let Russia Be Russia: The Case for a More Pragmatic Approach to Russia,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2019); Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “Russia and U.S. National Interests: Maintaining a Balance of Power in Europe and Asia,” Russia Matters, August 5, 2020, https://russiamatters.org/analysis/russia-and-us-national-interests-maintaining-balance-power-europe-and-asia; A Consensus Proposal for a Revised Regional Order in Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia, Samuel Charap, Jeremy Shapiro, John J. Drennan, et. al., eds., RAND Corporation, 2019.
 “Foreign Affairs Issue Launch,” op. cit., January 23, 2018.
 Nuland, “Pinning Down Putin,” 94.
 See for example, Jacob Poushter, “Russians Say Their Government Did Not Try to Influence U.S. Presidential election,” Pew Research Center, August 21, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/08/21/russians-say-their-government-did-not-try-to-influence-u-s-presidential-election/; "More Russians are sure of the U.S. meddling in their politics than the other way around, poll finds,” The Washington Post. February 7, 2018; Theodore P. Gerber, “Foreign Policy and the United States in Russian Public Opinion,” Problems of Post-Communism 62:2 (2015), 102.
 “Foreign Affairs Issue Launch,” op. cit., January 23, 2018.
 Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2018), 45.
 Thomas Graham and Robert Legvold, “It’s Better to Deal with China and Russia in Tandem: Putting China and Russia into Policy Silos Will Be Counterproductive,” Politico, February 4, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/02/04/china-russia-tandem-policy-465616.
 See a particularly trenchant analysis by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the deputy national security advisor in Biden’ White House, “The Age of Strategic Instability,” Foreign Affairs, July 21, 2020.
 “The Charter of Paris for a New Europe,” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 21, 1990, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/0/6/39516.pdf.