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Foreign Policy

Biden-Putin Summit: Save or Stalemate?

Jun 07, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to a conversation in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16 as their first face-to-face meeting since Biden took office. With rising tensions and disputes over almost a half year, the bilateral meeting will do little to change the previous track of the Biden administration’s Russia policy or resolve long-standing fundamental differences in the relationship.

Since Biden’s election, U.S. policy toward Russia has shown three major features:

The first is not to seek a “reset” but to handle the relationship in a more pragmatic manner. Since the Clinton administration, every U.S. government has sought, but largely failed, to reset relations with Russia. Unlike his predecessors, Biden has not pursued or even mentioned a reset in dealing with Russia, which means that his Russia policy will not compromise too much for an unrealistic goal. So in announcing the summit, the White House also emphasized that it sought to restore predictability and stability to the relationship.

The second is to increase pressure on Russia under the guidance of a values-based foreign policy. Biden quickly reversed a series of Trump foreign policy moves. One important starting point was a reemphasis ons the significance of Western values such as democracy and human rights. Under this adjustment, Russia has become a “rogue” and a tool for the U.S. to reshape the transatlantic alliance. Washington and Brussels have coordinated over the Alexei Navalny incident and together imposed sanctions against Russian officials and businesses in March this year.

The third is to ensure the bottom line of strategic stability between the two countries. Although Biden is unable to completely change bilateral relations, he still hopes to fasten a safety line. At the beginning of his administration, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement to extend the New START treaty for another five years, setting the stage for future negotiations on a new arms control agreement. Both sides are aware that if the treaty is not renewed, they will face a severe nuclear arms race, and that in the current low level of mutual trust between the two sides, an uncontrolled confrontation could lead to catastrophe.

At the summit in June, it will be difficult to fundamentally change course. The two leaders will focus on maintaining strategic stability, combating the pandemic, tackling climate change and dealing with other global and regional affairs on which they share a certain consensus. But more likely they will spend a lot of time clarifying their own positions. On Ukraine, for example, Biden will continue to emphasize U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On Navalny, Biden will also keep up the pressure on Putin.

There are voices in the U.S. calling for a review of American policy toward Russia. In the context of increasing strategic competition between the U.S. and China, some U.S. scholars believe that Biden’s approach toward both countries will only bring those two closer to each other in the form of a de-facto strategic alliance against America. The U.S. should therefore abandon ideological lines and work with Allies such as the EU to draw Russia in. The Biden administration’s recent decision to waive sanctions on the corporate entity and CEO overseeing the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany reflects its use of “leverage diplomacy” to ease relations with both Russia and Germany in an attempt to gain a strategic advantage in competition with China.

But in the longer term, a series of deep-rooted factors make it difficult for U.S.-Russia relations to thaw quickly. First, U.S. domestic politics are a key constraint. Biden has no “Russiagate” baggage, yet he has to deal with a risky domestic political atmosphere. On sanctions against Russia, the power to lift core sanctions rests with Congress, and anti-Russian hatred remains the dominant sentiment in both political parties in the U.S. In late July 2017, the U.S. Congress passed legislation containing sanctions against Russia, not only dealing a blow to bilateral relations at the time, but also giving Congress the right to consider whether to lift or ease those sanctions.

In addition, Biden’s special emphasis on values-based diplomacy has shackled his policy toward Russia. Any detente policy will be closely scrutinized and directly linked to Russia’s conformity with Western values.

Second, there is still a huge gap in strategic understanding between the two countries. After the Cold War, the U.S. regarded Russia as a defeated country and sought to keep it under Western influence. The U.S. believed that even if Russia could not be drawn into the “free world” led by the U.S., it must be prevented from becoming a threat to it.

However, Russia has always believed that the unipolar world dominated by the U.S. is unacceptable. The eastward expansion of NATO led by the U.S. has threatened Russia’s security interests, and the hegemonic attitude of the U.S. has made it impossible for Russia to build trust. As Russian foreign minister Lavrov said after meeting with his counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that Russia and the U.S. could discuss any issue, but it must be based on mutual respect.

Third, Europe remains an important variable in U.S.-Russia detente. Europe has always been ambivalent about the relationship. On one hand, it is wary of a so-called geopolitical “grand bargain” between the U.S. and Russia at the expense of European interests. On the other, it is worried that the U.S.-Russia relationship could completely spiral out of control and hurt Europe.

Meanwhile, Biden hopes to repair and further consolidate the transatlantic alliance by casting Russia as a common challenge. So the Biden administration’s policy toward Russia must take into account European feelings and concerns. Biden’s meeting with Putin after his visits with European allies in June illustrates that European factors will continue to constrain the pace and depth of the possible detente.

Therefore, facing numerous constraints and limits, the Biden administration’s policy toward Russia is full of contradictions, and the two sides do not have enough political will and capability to reach a strategic bargain. The bilateral relationship will not be easily improved after a summit.

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