Expanding the Scope for Statecraft in U.S. Russia Policy
The Biden administration has its sights set on a June summit with Russia. Given the new lows plowed in the bilateral relationship — so low that both countries’ ambassadors have returned home for consultations — talks at the presidential level are an important channel of communication. While the summit is unlikely to yield a fiasco like the infamous Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, it is also not likely to change the downward trajectory of the relationship, even if the administration’s proposal to start arms control and strategic stability talks succeeds.
The Biden administration’s narrow agenda for the summit is reflective of the state of the relationship, but it also stems from the fundamental continuities in U.S. Russia strategy since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. That strategy is extremely pessimistic about what negotiations can achieve with Russia today, and unduly optimistic that America’s problems with Russia may be easier to solve in the future. Instead of tinkering with the existing approach, the Biden administration should attempt to pursue negotiated outcomes with Moscow on a range of interests and conflicts, beyond just arms control and strategic stability talks. In order to better stabilize the relationship, the administration should take the opportunity in the run-up to the summit to revisit core assumptions, and expand the scope for statecraft in U.S. Russia policy.
Defining the Post-2014 Strategy
America’s post-2014 strategy on Russia has been defined by three central elements. First and foremost, U.S. policy has entailed a campaign of active pressure. That meant punishing Russian “malign behavior” through sanctions, reinforcing deterrence and defense along NATO’s eastern flank states, increasing engagement with Russia’s neighbors, and trying to isolate Moscow diplomatically. But this was not intended to become a zero-sum antagonistic relationship. Indeed, the second pillar of the strategy has been selective cooperation with Moscow on issues of importance to the United States, but only when Washington deems such cooperation necessary. Prominent examples include the original Iran nuclear deal negotiations, which involved close U.S.-Russian coordination at the height of the Ukraine crisis, bilateral engagement on Afghan peace talks, and President Joe Biden’s proposed arms control negotiations.
Finally, the strategy holds out hope for improved relations under a reformed Russian government that would be prepared to atone for past geopolitical transgressions. In short, Washington has been prepared to talk to Moscow regarding a discrete set of issues of its own choosing — on everything else, the idea was to squeeze the Russians and wait until they eventually (inevitably) relent.
These three pillars emerged in the Obama administration in response to Moscow’s behavior in Ukraine. President Donald Trump, despite his personal affection for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his reluctance to criticize Moscow’s behavior publicly, continued (and to a certain extent even hardened) the policy he inherited. Of course, his administration did make its distinctive mark on certain issues — most notably, by withdrawing from two arms control treaties and nearly running out the clock on a third. Trump was incoherent and inconsistent, but the fundamental approach remained unchanged.
The Biden administration successfully differentiates itself from its predecessors by virtue of not coming into office seeking to reset relations with Russia, which is neither possible nor desirable in 2021. And the administration is undoing many of Trump’s counterproductive tactics by emphasizing working with key U.S. allies, and messaging its policy coherently and consistently. However, the three core elements of the post-2014 strategy seem to have survived unscathed. Biden has described a policy of being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” emphasizing the need to selectively cooperate while punishing Russia for hostile or undesirable acts, and looking for a change in Moscow’s behavior.
Has It Worked?
The active pressure component of the post-2014 strategy has been implemented with zeal. Without a doubt, the United States has inflicted significant pain on Russia in the intervening years. Washington, mostly in partnership with Brussels, has sanctioned key sectors of the economy, major state-owned firms, and hundreds of Russian entities and individuals. The United States and other NATO militaries have made forward deployments to deter Moscow, conducted larger exercises, and are more engaged in operational planning than at any time since the Cold War. The United States has made life difficult for Russia in ways big and small, ranging from dissuading key arms customers like India from purchasing Russian weapons, to closing several diplomatic facilities, to labeling RT, the Kremlin’s foreign broadcaster, as a foreign agent.
The effects of the pressure campaign have been painful for Moscow, but it is difficult to see how it has delivered the desired changes in Russian behavior. Russia seems undeterred from its so-called “malign activities” against U.S. allies, partners, or the U.S. homeland itself. Russian use of force in foreign policy continues unabated, in Syria, Libya, and in the recent coercive military deployments along Ukraine’s borders. While there has been sporadic bilateral cooperation on discrete issues, Russia has also countered U.S. efforts by frustrating Washington’s diplomatic initiatives and, in cases like Syria, vetoing U.S. foreign policy preferences. Sanctions have had an impact on Russia’s economy, but economists warn that they are yielding diminishing returns and “have affected the internal political economy of Russia in unforeseen ways not necessarily favorable to U.S. foreign policy.” There is no sign, in short, that the post-2014 strategy is changing Russian behavior in ways consistent with U.S. interests. Evidence is mounting that it is at best a middling approach.
In order to effectively course correct, the United States should reexamine the three core assumptions that appear to be driving the post-2014 U.S. strategy toward Russia: first, that Russia is a power in decline, and thus will be a less significant challenge over time; second, that the risks to U.S. interests from pursuing current strategy are low, and the costs minimal; and third, that the major disagreements between Moscow and Washington are impossible to negotiate with the current regime and thus the only way relations can improve is if Moscow chooses to change its behavior, or the Russian people choose to change their regime. All three assumptions are flawed.
Questioning the Assumptions
Efforts in Washington to intellectually retire Russia from great power status, premised on the idea that it is a power in decline, are not well-grounded in empirical reality. Russia remains a leading military power, which effectively spends in the range of $150-180 billion annually on defense (in purchasing power parity terms), to say nothing of the fact that it is America’s only real peer in nuclear weapons. Economic stagnation is unlikely to meaningfully reduce those aspects of the state’s capability that make it a challenge to U.S. interests.
Russia is not a rising power, but that does not diminish its ability to challenge the United States either in the short or medium term. Russia retains the power to upend European security, use force outside of its own region, and check or veto U.S. foreign policy globally — and it holds a seat at some of the world’s most significant international institutions. Yes, its economy is much smaller than that of China, America’s other great-power rival, but its appetite for international action, risk tolerance, and will to use force are significant.
This does not mean that Russia is a 10-foot-tall bogeyman. But it does mean that the United States needs to gird itself for a sustained competition. Russia will not disappear, or inevitably become more malleable due to macro trends. A serious investment in dealing with Russian power and influence requires recognizing it as a force in global affairs, not just a spoiler or opportunist, and resourcing efforts to manage relations with Moscow today.
Second, the assumption that the current state of the relationship poses insignificant risks does not hold up to scrutiny.
The risks stemming from the current state of the relationship are not trivial. The prospect of a conflict between Russia and NATO due to miscalculation or misunderstanding looms larger as the confrontation intensifies. The Russian penchant for using force to prevent geopolitical losses, engage in coercive diplomacy, or impose its will upon neighbors is well-established. Consequently, European security is far less stable than it may appear, perhaps one major crisis away from a complete breakdown. A conflict between Russia and the United States could have existential implications not just for European security, but also for the prevailing international order.
Such a conflict could result from a mismanaged game of coercive bargaining, a miscalculated gambit to make gains, or a heavy-handed response to a crisis that drives an escalatory spiral. Both Russia and the United States expect the worst from each other, and see the other side as acting aggressively. European allies add to the dynamic, with their own security concerns and interests, shaped by a complex history vis-a-vis Russia. The situation is thus ripe for escalation and misjudgment.
Third, the expectation that Russia will eventually change its behavior — or its regime — in ways that suit U.S. interests is based more on hope than on evidence. Instead of using coercive pressure as leverage in a negotiation, Washington states that Moscow “has a choice to make,” and waits. Consequently, the United States has, over time, ceded the initiative and failed to structure Russian choices. Moscow has demonstrated that when given the opportunity to make choices it often chooses poorly or recklessly. Whether indiscriminate use of force in Syria, the employment of unscrupulous mercenaries abroad, cyber attacks that result in collateral damage, or the use of nerve agents in targeted assassinations, the decision calculus in Moscow has left much to be desired. Holding out hope that an epiphany occurs within the Kremlin, or that a new regime will fundamentally reorganize Russia’s foreign policy outlook, is not a reasonable plan for managing this relationship. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the next Russian leader will prove any more amenable to talks than Putin, let alone more willing to embrace America’s view of the world.
The persistence of these three assumptions — that Russia is in steep geopolitical decline, that the state of the relationship does not pose significant risks to U.S. interests, and that eventually Russian behavior may change for the better — accounts for considerable continuity in U.S. strategy since 2014. Specifically, they have facilitated an unwillingness to engage Moscow on the core drivers of instability, like political interference or the Russian conflict with Ukraine. Why bother with politically fraught negotiations if the upside benefits are minimal (Russia does not matter), the downsides of not talking are manageable (low risks), and there is the deceptively attractive option of waiting out the current regime.
Adjusting Strategy to Reality
A revised U.S. strategy should begin with revised assumptions. First, Russia is a significant, enduring challenge to U.S. interests that will not fade away over time. Second, in its current state the U.S.-Russian relationship runs considerable risks for the United States, its allies, and partners. If unaddressed, these risks will get more severe over time. Third, the Kremlin is unlikely to repent and seek forgiveness for its geopolitical sins. And as much as we might find the current Russian regime unsavory, its successor could prove no better, or in some cases worse. Yes, it is possible that a post-Putin regime will curtail the more egregious behavior, but Washington and Moscow will retain profound policy disagreements and a legacy of antagonistic relations unlikely to be easily overcome.
The implications for strategy are clear: America needs to employ statecraft to stabilize the relationship, reduce problematic Russian behavior, and better manage conflicts. That means using both coercive tools and a willingness to negotiate — giving something to get something — in order to pursue U.S. objectives on significant issues. The post-2014 strategy calls for engagement and compromise on a narrow set of issues, while in effect hoping Russia will capitulate on everything else. A revised strategy should significantly widen the scope for statecraft.
Of course, there will be cases where negotiations won’t succeed, and there should be firm limits to U.S. willingness to compromise. Russia will have to engage in good faith, make concessions, and visibly change its behavior. Many in Washington preemptively reject negotiations with Moscow out of a conviction that they are unlikely to yield any workable solutions. Yet the possibility of failure to find agreement, which is always high when dealing with adversaries, should not be an excuse to avoid trying to pursue one. Such efforts have not been made in earnest, or competently, in recent years.
We can see a case study in how to bring together coercive means and negotiations in Biden’s approach to strategic stability. Not only did he extend the New START treaty for a full five years within days of taking office, but he has also committed to strategic stability talks with Russia, to be launched at a bilateral summit planned for June. As his national security advisor Jake Sullivan has said, the intention is to have “serious sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats that fall outside of the New START agreement, as well as other emerging security challenges as well.” This approach is based on a fundamental assumption that the United States cannot achieve its objectives in the strategic domain through unilateral actions to impose outcomes on Russia. There is no combination of capability development and cost imposition that can create a stable strategic relationship. Negotiations are necessary, and those negotiations will entail a degree of give-and-take — neither side can expect to simply dictate its terms to the other. At the same time, talks do not entail an abandonment of coercive policy instruments. Instead, they render coercive instruments more useful in pursuit of U.S. objectives.
This policy formula of combining coercive actions to increase leverage with talks to achieve a negotiated outcome makes eminent sense. But rather than confining the use of this formula to strategic stability talks and a few other topics, the United States should employ it across the range of issues in the relationship with Russia, and particularly the major sources of bilateral tensions. As is the case on nuclear arms control, on issues such as election interference, Syria, or Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, the United States cannot achieve its objectives using only unilateral measures.
Take the example of election interference. As the recent report from the director of national intelligence on Russian activities during the 2020 elections demonstrates, U.S. efforts at cost imposition have not stopped or substantially altered Russian behavior. Even the knowledge that further interference would lead to more sanctions did not deter Moscow. A revised approach would combine cost imposition with talks to seek a negotiated change in Russian behavior. After all, sanctions might provide leverage, but in order to actually put that leverage to work, the U.S. needs to be willing to negotiate. If Russia is uninterested in seriously engaging, then the punitive measures remain.
A U.S. acceptance of the need to seek negotiated outcomes would not transform U.S.-Russian relations. There is no realistic prospect of such a transformation. Profound differences that cannot be bridged are likely to persist in the short and medium term. The United States and Russia will remain competitors. But a U.S. approach that accepts the necessity of negotiated solutions across the range of issues at stake in the relationship would offer the prospect of a stable bilateral relationship, which should be the medium-term objective for the United States.
Given the existing complete mutual mistrust, this will not be an easy proposition — it is likely to be a tough, long slog that requires an investment of political capital. But a stable relationship would provide several tangible benefits to Washington compared to the status quo.
First, it would open the possibility of mitigating the damage being done to U.S. interests by the current state of the relationship. Russia is engaged in a range of activities that cause the United States major headaches. A stable relationship opens the prospect of managing these disputes, ranging from Ukraine to cyberspace, more productively and potentially reducing the amount of Russian hostile activity directed at the United States and its allies. Being open to talking and bargaining will diminish the incentives for Russian chicanery and create additional disincentives to bad behavior. A stable relationship could also discourage gratuitous Russian “spoiling” of U.S. diplomatic initiatives.
Second, the current instability increases the likelihood that both countries could mismanage their response to a crisis. Even if this does not result in a direct clash, the consequences for U.S. allies and partners could be grave. With pervasive worst-case assumptions, both sides are more likely to misinterpret or miscalculate in a way that facilitates escalation. A stable relationship will not resolve the conflicts of interest between Moscow and Washington — instead, it would allow for those conflicts to be managed with lower risk and defrayed cost. This is not only in the U.S. interest, but it is also a policy direction that many allies are likely to support.
Third, a stable relationship would allow for more effective engagement with Russia on issues that require some degree of bilateral interaction. Regardless of the American assessment of the Russian regime, Moscow is and will remain a key player on issues that matter to the United States. Russia has been willing to play ball on some dossiers even under current circumstances, such as the Iran nuclear deal and Afghanistan, but there are important counterexamples — cases when Moscow has deliberately undermined U.S. priorities, seemingly out of a why-do-them-any-favors sentiment. For example, Russia boycotted the American-led 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the Obama administration’s flagship nonproliferation effort in which Moscow had played a key role. Venezuela is another case where Moscow has few interests of note, and is vested in undermining U.S. foreign policy seemingly as a riposte or revenge.
Biden has recently stated that “we want a stable, predictable relationship” with Russia. But it will take more than arms control talks to get it. The administration needs to open the aperture for statecraft if it truly wants to stabilize the relationship.
Red-Teaming the Approach
Several objections to the proposed shift in strategy can be anticipated. Some will argue that talking to Putin is a concession in itself, or that doing so risks legitimizing his autocratic, aggressive regime. Thankfully, this does not appear to be the view of the Biden administration. It is true that the post-2014 strategy’s emphasis on isolating Russia has made engagement seem like a concession. But the isolation policy was never tenable. Within months the United States itself was violating it, and for good reason — selectively engaging Moscow is a means of furthering U.S. national interests. It’s never a concession to do that. And the Russian regime’s domestic legitimation narrative often emphasizes saving the Russian people from an aggressive West. Arguably bilateral engagement could chip away at that narrative and deprive the Kremlin’s propagandists of the American bogeyman. In any case, U.S.-Russian relations at most have a marginal impact on the Putin regime’s legitimacy, and the policy of isolation visibly failed years ago. We should not overstate the transformational impact of diplomatic engagement on any state’s domestic politics, nor assume that Washington has supreme legitimating power.
Others have argued that Russia will never change its policies, so negotiations are either pointless or would require the United States to make unacceptable concessions. It is possible, of course, that a coercion-plus-dialogue approach will not produce results. There is no guarantee of success in foreign policy, but the history of U.S. statecraft is replete with cases where the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia, changed policy in response to a combination of U.S. coercion and engagement. For example, President Barack Obama’s recent memoir recounts Moscow’s policy shift on Iran in 2009-2010, which enabled the international sanctions regime that in turn pushed Tehran to the negotiating table.
James Goldgeier has argued that negotiated outcomes are not possible because the only terms Russia would accept — “the United States shelves its foundational support for democracy and formally recognizes a Russian-privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union” — cross core U.S. red lines. Moscow might fantasize about such a deal, but there is no evidence that it is either a serious precondition or would form a practical basis for negotiations. The only way to find out which Russian positions are aspirations, and which are irreconcilable demands, is to sit down at the table in the first place.
Some proponents of an even more hawkish policy argue that we simply have not done enough of the post-2014 strategy. Their solution is to double down: increase pressure, deploy more forces forward, and further squeeze the Putin regime. There is an attractive simplicity to this argument, but this policy is a bridge to nowhere. The purpose of coercive measures is to empower diplomacy, as Frederick the Great once said, “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” The inverse is equally true — coercion without diplomatic engagement is just banging instruments together to make noise, and likely breaking something in the process.
A Wider Agenda for Statecraft
The post-2014 U.S. strategy toward Russia has lacked a plausible desired end-state, characterized by extreme pessimism about what can be achieved in dealing with Moscow, and equally undue optimism that something will positively change on the Russian side of the equation at an unspecified point in the future. The essence of the current U.S. strategy has been to structure relations such that they are at the mercy of the next crisis. Hoping to win the lottery and have a future that will bring a transformation of Russian foreign policy premised on accommodation is not a prudent basis for U.S. strategy. The last seven years have demonstrated that muddling through comes at a significant risk to U.S. and allied interests.
Biden’s initiative to engage Putin directly and sit down with him in June is sensible. But continuing to pursue a policy of compartmentalizing the relationship (i.e., trying to work with Russia on certain issues while pushing back everywhere else) is unlikely to be a sustainable solution. Effectively demanding capitulation on major issues outside of the narrow agenda for talks will not stabilize the relationship. It will just be a matter of time before the next crisis derails the talks. Stability, if it is a genuine goal, requires substantive dialogue on even the most significant disputes, and attempting negotiated outcomes where possible, while developing frameworks to manage the disagreements that remain unbridgeable. The goal is not to better the relationship for its own sake, but instead to favorably steer Russian decision-making rather than sit back and hope that the Kremlin will make the right choices, or that Russia will bend to U.S. preferences.
The United States should continue calling out Russian actions that violate human rights or international norms, and those that prove injurious to international stability or the security of Russia’s neighbors. However, Washington should recognize that active pressure and deterrence measures are a necessary, but not sufficient, instrument to curtail problematic Russian behavior. The Biden administration should expand the scope for statecraft in Russia policy to attain more favorable outcomes for the United States and its allies.
Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. The RAND Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy supported Charap’s work on this article.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence