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U.S.-Russia Relations Are As Bad As They Can Get. Can the Geneva Summit Help?

Joe Biden Russia

Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. In March, President Biden called President Putin a “killer”, a springtime Russian troop build-up on the Ukrainian border nearly set off another geopolitical crisis, and Moscow recently announced that it would join the United States in withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. For its part, Congress has been rightly indignant over the near completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Germany’s shameless double-dipping. All of this under the shadow of the revelation late last year that a massive years-long Russian cyber espionage operation had compromised the software security firm and government contractor SolarWinds has helped crystallize the iciness between Washington and Moscow.

So when the White House issued a statement last week that President Biden and President Putin would meet in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16th to “discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship”, many questioned whether a meeting between heads of state would “legitimize” Russia’s bad behavior. Yet, the more serious barometer for measuring the value of high-level summitry should be whether there is any chance that Biden and Putin can negotiate and compromise on issues of mutual concern.

As a general rule, presidents should not shy away from meeting with foreign adversaries. Especially since the United States and Russia are the world’s two largest nuclear powers with thousands of weapons between them, the leaders of both countries have an obligation to engage each other face to face to work out differences between their countries.

Moreover, in international politics, personal relationships are a vehicle for establishing trust and building confidence. It is important that Biden and Putin have a working relationship so that each knows the other is committed to implementing policies that will improve relations between their two countries. If neither leader has the trust and confidence of the other, then each is more likely to embrace half measures and hedge their bets.

However, efforts to build trust and confidence with a foreign leader at summit meetings will only work if there is a reasonable chance that progress can be made on substantive issues. Personal relationships must complement interest-based commitments to negotiation and compromise if they are to have any value. Otherwise, the entire summit will dissolve into tense formalities and diplomatic grandstanding.

One area where progress might be made involves updating the recently extended New START treaty to include new nuclear weapons technology. Specifically, as a detailed report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace written by Pranay Vaddi and James M. Acton outlines, the Biden team should look to include limitations on missiles, launchers, and warheads for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), intercontinental ground-launched boost-glide missiles (IGLBGMs), nuclear torpedoes (NT’s), nuclear-powered cruise missiles, air-launched ballistic and boost-glide missiles (ALBMs and ALBGMs), and sea-launched boost-glide missiles (SLBGMs).

Amending New START to include these weapons—many of which were developed after the treaty’s entry into force in 2010—would help uphold both countries’ commitment to a more restrained force posture and help stabilize the nuclear threat environment. Additionally, the increase in on-site inspections and enhanced verifications measures would help deflate threat perceptions and reinforce mutual trust on arms control. The Biden administration’s extension of the treaty signals that they see the value in this approach. Using the summit to strengthen the integrity of the agreement would be a positive development in the midst of an emerging global arms race.

Other than arms control, the biggest issue facing Biden and Putin is the fate of Ukraine. On this score, the two sides could not be farther apart. Since the Bucharest Summit in 2008, every American administration has voiced support for Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic aspirations” or its desire to join NATO. Russia, on the other hand, has shown that it is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening. Over the years, Putin and other Russian officials have made it known that they are willing to “destroy Ukraine” should the West move to integrate it into the defense alliance.

It might be too late to strike a “grand bargain” over Ukraine. To do so would require that the United States cease sending lethal arms, place a moratorium on NATO enlargement, and lift sanctions related to the 2014 seizure of Crimea. Russia would also have to end its material support for the separatists in the eastern region of Donbas and push them to make peace with Kyiv. For this approach to work, both Biden and Putin would need to recognize Ukraine as a non-aligned neutral power akin to what Austria was during the Cold War. Kyiv would have to accept the role of being a buffer state between Russia and the West. Considering the strife which has plagued Ukraine since 2014 and the asymmetry of interests between its great power neighbor to the east and its “partners” to the west, this might be the only way to bring about a semblance of geopolitical stability.

Nobody in the Biden administration has indicated that they are ready or willing to undertake this course of action. Doing so would be antithetical to their “restorationist” approach to alliances and “America is back” brand of global politicking. When Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s border back in April, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin publicly affirmed the United States’ “unwavering support” for its “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” In practice, the White House’s support did not extend further than rhetoric, but it was clear that official American policy had not changed.

Finally, it could not hurt for Biden to propose the creation of a cyber non-aggression pact with Putin. Given the recent attack on Colonial Pipeline, albeit it by a non-state affiliated Russian hacking group, it should be clear that both countries have an interest in protecting their national infrastructure from great power aggression. Agreeing to leave each other’s domestic-based electrical, energy, and data networks alone would be tremendously difficult to enforce—as well as virtually unprecedented in the age of cyber warfare—but could be conducive to encouraging mutual restraint. For this reason, Putin might be willing to give it a better hearing than whatever Biden has to say about Ukraine.

The June summit could not come at a worse time, but it may be exactly why Biden and Putin need to meet face to face. Ultimately, its success or failure will be determined by the progress made on issues of mutual concern. If Biden is serious about improving U.S.-Russian relations, then he will have to negotiate and make compromises with Putin. Personal expressions of goodwill are empty if substantive, interest-based disagreements remain deadlocked.

As the world’s foremost nuclear powers, the United States and Russia share a unique responsibility in working to uphold the stability of the international system. Whatever their differences, relations between Washington and Moscow cannot afford to devolve into the kind of permanent adversarial competition reminiscent of the first half of the Cold War. The world is too small and too dangerous for either country to alienate the other. Hopefully, the June summit will be a step in the right direction.

Matthew Mai was a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society in the fall of 2020.

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Matthew Mai was a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society in the fall of 2020.