While Presidents Biden and Putin meet amid the most strained U.S.-Russian relations in a generation, this week’s summit could yield moves to rebuild predictability in that relationship, especially new steps to address rising global risks to stability and security. Even as the United States confronts Putin over his wielding of selective chaos as a foreign policy crowbar, both sides share an interest in managing disparate international threats — from the weakening of the limits on nuclear weapons and the emergence of new high technology weapons, to climate change and COVID. The summit could reopen dialogue on such challenges.
Two ‘Russia Problems’
Recent events, and statements from Biden, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and others, make clear that this summit will consider two sets of problems. Some are highly intractable, reflecting the Kremlin regime’s deep insecurity, the profound differences in the countries’ strategic outlook and asymmetries in their international clout. But on other specific issues, progress can be made.
After an impressive record of growth during the first years of Putin’s rule, the Russian economy has stagnated in recent years due to widespread corruption, weak rule of law, and Western sanctions. The regime has failed to bring Russians broad prosperity. With discontent rising, Putin has shifted to manipulating elections and the constitution—and, increasingly, on naked repression.
Putin’s foreign policy aims to maximize Russian power and protect the regime through force, deception, opportunism, and the selective creation of chaos that can distract his opponents at home and abroad — especially the United States — and reward his elite domestic allies. Putin will feel a continued need for those tactics.
Putin’s most determined use of force is to quash democracy movements in Russia’s “near abroad” that offer models for change that Russians might seek to emulate. Thus, he invaded and dismembered Georgia in 2008. His deadliest and most determined assault has been that on Ukraine, which has left more than 13,000 people dead and 1.4 million displaced. This year Putin massed new troops against Ukraine and is backing Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko against that country’s democratic protest movement. These intrusions are “hybrid wars,” combining overt or covert armed force, disinformation through mass and social media, and the fostering of corruption to undermine elections and exploit the other vulnerabilities of Russa’s neighbors.
Farther afield, Putin uses “hybrid warfare” to seek geopolitical advantage or profit for his administration and cronies, complicating upheavals in Syria, Libya, Venezuela and the Central African Republic. Russia’s guns in these interventions are carried either by government troops or fighters with the nominally private Wagner Group, controlled by Putin’s ally, Yevgeniy Prigozhin.
The United States and its allies have targeted Putin’s abuses with successive rounds of sanctions — the latest only weeks ago after the White House said Russia’s intelligence service conducted the massive hacking and data theft against the U.S. company SolarWinds. Britain, Australia, and Canada have added sanctions and the European Parliament recommended blocking Russia from the SWIFT system for financial transactions if Moscow were to send new troops into Ukraine.
Strong international penalties not only have hurt the Kremlin. They are vital to prevent other authoritarian governments from adopting Putin’s playbook—as Belarus did last month in forcing down an Irish airliner headed to neighboring Lithuania so that Lukashenko’s government could arrest a passenger, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. The international response was swift and broad. The European Union halted air traffic between Europe and Belarus. The United States revived earlier sanctions against Belarus and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators urged further action.
Strategic Stability: A Shared Challenge
The issues that offer the best prospects for U.S.-Russian cooperation are those that threaten the security of both, and indeed all, nations. On the COVID pandemic, both Biden and Putin have proposed waiving patent rights on their countries’ COVID vaccines to accelerate their distribution worldwide. On climate change, Putin joined Biden’s virtual summit conference on climate in April (just days after Biden imposed the toughened U.S. sanctions on Russia) but made no commitments on reducing Russian greenhouse gas emissions.
At the core of these challenges is strengthening “strategic stability,” the condition that has helped to secure the world against nuclear war for decades. This stability was shaped by arms control treaties rooted in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that largely focused on strategic nuclear weapons. However, most of those pacts excluded China and are losing effectiveness with the expansion of Chinese military capabilities and the growth of nuclear arsenals among other non-signatory nations. In recent weeks, U.S. and Chinese security experts convened by USIP recommended a set of official and unofficial dialogues specifically on U.S.-China portions of the strategic stability knot. The established security architecture also does not cover technological advances that have enabled the development of cyber, space and hypervelocity weapons.
Summit: A Step Toward Dialogue
While both the White House and the Kremlin have signaled their presidents’ readiness to talk this week, it remains unclear what steps might be achieved to jointly address these challenges. One likely outcome may be pledges by both sides to participate in follow-on discussions on strategic stability.
More significant eventual goals suggested by U.S. or Russian officials or analysts include:
- Formal renewal of a formal strategic stability dialogue that was last held in January 2020. Biden and Putin discussed in April their “intent … to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues,” the White House said, building on the extension in February of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
- A focus on cyber-attacks. While analysts agree that no early progress is likely in defining rules to reduce conflict in cyberspace, the urgency of the topic is underscored by the series of Russia-based intrusions — from efforts to influence U.S. and other elections to the SolarWinds assault to criminal attacks for ransom such as those this year on Colonial Pipelines and the JBS meat-processing firm.
- A serious effort to establish an arms control regime in space, where the United States, Russia, and China already have shown they are developing weapons capabilities.
- A strengthening of military “deconfliction” agreements to prevent the U.S. and Russian militaries from stumbling into hostilities because of an accident such as a mid-air collision. Military analysts have warned of a rising risk of such an accident because of a recent increase in close encounters between Russian and U.S. or NATO forces.
A meeting of presidents in this dark, tense chapter of U.S.-Russian relations is likely at best to achieve no more than an opening for progress. As always on strategic stability issues, real progress will require meticulous, labored negotiations. And on many of these problems — where technology and geopolitical change have outstripped our efforts to build policy — we will first need deeper, preparatory spadework. In many cases, that will include basic research to better understand the threats and possible solutions, and unofficial dialogues to lay foundations for formal diplomacy.