For the first few months of his tenure, President Biden’s posture toward Russia was largely antagonistic. He dubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer” in a March interview, while making ominous but vague noises about retribution for digital influence campaigns and more direct breaches of cybersecurity. Moscow withdrew its ambassador to the United States in response, then Washington brought our ambassador home as well.
Meanwhile, Biden added to the already considerable pile of American sanctions on Russia (despite sanctions’ starkly poor record of meaningfully shifting targeted states’ behavior.) All told, as Putin said in an NBC interview last week, the US and Russia “have a bilateral relationship that has deteriorated to what is the lowest point in recent years.”
But at their first in-person meeting in Geneva on Wednesday, Biden and Putin gave cause for cautious optimism. It now seems possible that US-Russia relations could move into a stabler and more pragmatic dynamic, one which dispenses with presently unrealistic notions of shared national values but steers safely clear of needless, reckless conflict between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers.
The Biden administration indicated its interest in a fresh direction at a background press gaggle en route to Geneva on Tuesday. “We’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting,” a senior administration official said, then elaborated: “We are seeking three basic things: First, a clear set of taskings about areas where working together can advance our national interest and make the world safer. Second, a clear laydown of the areas of America’s vital national interests, where Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response. And third, a clear explication of the president’s vision for American values and our national priorities.”
The first two items are sensible and constructive, as Putin himself recognized in comments after the summit Wednesday. Cooperation for mutual benefit — particularly on arms control, where the Biden administration has already made important progress but could make more — should be the first priority in US-Russian relations, and the two presidents’ Wednesday agreement to return their respective ambassadors to their posts is a wise (if significantly symbolic) step in this direction. Keeping lines of working-level diplomatic communication intact is the bare minimum for responsible great-power relations and should not be compromised.
Outlining the administration’s conception of vital US interests is also a prudent call if Biden is as serious about staving off conflict as he suggested shortly before the summit. The crucial point here is to keep that list of interests brief.
An expansive understanding of national interests which includes matters that are not truly vital — that is, not actually concerned with existential needs and threats — is a strategic weakness. It risks conflict we can and should avoid while distracting limited resources and attention from real security concerns. The ongoing US military presence in Syria, where Russia is also intervening militarily, is an unfortunately apt example of this sort of over-broad definition. Operating indefinitely in such close quarters with Moscow’s troops with no vital objective in sight is a dangerous unforced error that could have us stumble into great-power war, perhaps even by accident.
The third objective named at the press gaggle — “a clear explication of the president’s vision for American values and our national priorities” — is a less certain thing. The question it leaves open is what role American values are expected to play in US-Russia relations.
If the Biden administration’s intent is to refuse to dissemble in the face of Russian state behavior it deems unethical, that’s all well and good. There will be plenty of it. But if the idea is to attempt to coerce Putin into harming what he considers (however misguidedly) Russia’s vital national interests, that is a fool’s errand and a danger to US security. Putin is just as eager for “a clear laydown” of his nation’s interests, and he is just as certain to respond to American “activities that run counter to those interests.” As has been demonstrated again and again in the post-9/11 era, Washington cannot coercively remake other nations (especially other nations with large nuclear arsenals) in its image.
Near the start of the summit, Biden said he aimed “to determine where we have a mutual interest, where we can cooperate, and where we don’t, [to] establish a predictable and rational way in which we disagree [as] two great powers.” Though simple, that’s a strong agenda, and a welcome departure from the performative antagonism of his earlier term language toward Moscow — not to mention the melodramatic domestic conversation around US-Russia relations of the past few years. With the ambassadors returned to their posts, one arms control treaty revived and possibly more to come, and this suitably measured summit, Biden should press on in that more pragmatic vision of bilateral engagement.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.