Conflict and Leadership
US-Russian Relations: Where to Now?

US-Russian relations are more fraught than ever or, to quote Dmitry Peskov, “The relations now have hit the bottom.” That each country’s ambassador to the other country has been recalled “for consultation” is simply one manifestation of the new level of tension. More specifically, it is at Russian initiative. Russia recalled its ambassador from Washington in anger after President Biden in a TV interview labeled President Putin “a killer.” It then urged the US ambassador to return home in the wake of the latest wave of US sanctions imposed on Russia. Both of these triggering events, however, are but the tip of an iceberg in which the relationship remains frozen.

Biden’s undiplomatic language may have aroused greater indignation than previous US rhetoric and the sanctions may have stung a little more coming a day after the two presidents had a constructive conversation, but they fall within a pattern of discord that has characterized the relationship for the last seven years. The question is whether the advent of the Biden administration will lead to a further hardening of US policy and a tit-for-tat Russian response or, alternatively, create an opening for the two sides to try tentatively to move relations in a more constructive direction. 

Despite current widespread pessimism among observers in Moscow and Washington, all of this is occurring at what could be a potential turning point in the relationship. The Biden administration has articulated a two-track Russia policy—one that combines a determination to rebuff Russian behavior that it sees as threatening with a readiness to explore areas of cooperation important to both countries. This, in fact, is not much different from the policy pursued by both the Obama and Trump administrations, but, because the Biden administration has acted quickly to toughen policy, most observers assume that the “deterrence” side of policy will prevail, and the ”détente” side will either remain largely rhetorical or be undermined by the way the administration goes about countering Russian actions that it finds objectionable. 

In fact, however, there are traces of change that, if dealt with constructively by Moscow, could begin to lead the two countries out of their current dead end. Following the Biden administration’s opening forays intended to convey the basic outline of its Russia policy, the actual thrust of policy is slowly coming into view. Biden and his team do mean, as the Russian expression goes, to call things by their name. They are serious about exacting a price for what they deem to be Russian misbehavior (although it is far from clear that they, any more than their predecessors, know how to do this successfully). They, however, also clearly want to set the relationship on a more stable and constructive path. And they are conscious of the tension between the two sides of policy—the simultaneous commitment to deterrence and détente—and they are wrestling with ways to pursue one without destroying the prospects of the other. 

It is not an easy task, nor is it guaranteed against failure. But that they are serious about trying is reflected in the steps they have taken in these first three months. They began by emphasizing their intention to “hold Russia to account” for behavior seen as threatening to US or allied interests. Hence, the stern message in Biden’s first telephone conversation with Putin in January, a message repeated by senior US officials at every opportunity in the weeks that followed. Their early signaling on this score was also explicit in Biden’s charge to US intelligence agencies to carry out a thorough review of four specific alleged Russian offenses: interference in the 2020 presidential election, the hacking of Solar Winds and penetration of US infrastructure, the treatment of Alexei Navalny, and Russian payment of bounties to kill US personnel in Afghanistan. Depending on the results of that review, his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, warned that the United States would react in ways “seen and unseen,” and not only with sanctions. 

That, combined with the harsh language coming from the administration, clearly set the Kremlin on edge, and its initial response was to answer every measure taken by the US side with a rebuff of its own. But deeper beneath the surface of this tit-for-tat exercise something more promising seems to be happening. Putin’s relatively mild response to Biden’s “killer” comment and the symbolic step of calling Ambassador Antonov back to Moscow can be seen as a measured attempt to appear resolute, while avoiding actions that would significantly heighten tensions. Biden’s April 13 telephone conversation with Putin, sharply different in tone from the January call, constitutes a second major step forward. Biden’s proposal for a summit meeting, his assurance that he wants a “stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with US interests,” and, most important, his readiness to engage in a serious “strategic stability dialogue” on the critical issues burdening the relationship provides more evidence that the administration is serious about balancing the push back against Russian actions to which it objects with constructive engagement on major issues of common interest. One also assumes that Putin has noticed that Biden has sought a summit with him before offering the same to Xi Jinping. 

A further sign of shifting winds emerges from what normally would be viewed as still another blow undermining hopes for improved relations. The Biden administration’s sanctions announced two weeks ago along with the expulsion of Russian diplomats did produce a predictably angry response and a matching set of diplomatic expulsions as well as new hardships imposed on the US diplomatic missions. But the detail is more interesting—and potentially more promising. Once the intelligence review ordered by Biden confirmed Russian involvement in the Solar Winds hack as well as interference in the 2020 US election it was certain that the administration would impose new sanctions and, as with those related to Crimea, underscore its renewed partnership with European allies. The nature of the sanctions and the way they were presented, however, further reflects Biden’s determination to maintain the balance between the two sides of policy, including his commitment to cooperate with Russia on key issues, such as nuclear arms control, the health pandemic, and climate change. He and senior White House officials stressed that the measures they had taken were “measured and proportionate;” that they could have inflicted harsher penalties, but chose not to because “we do not desire a downward spiral,” and do not want “to be in an escalatory cycle with Russia.” 

Indeed, the most serious of the sanctions, prohibiting US financial institutions from purchasing newly issued ruble-denominated Russian bonds in the primary market, while a further move against Russian sovereign debt, fell far short of the damage from sanctioning debt on the secondary market. Thus, while US officials claimed that they were imposing “economically impactful costs” demonstrating that they were resolute in resisting interference with US elections, many financial analysts In New York and London doubted that blocking US participation in the Russian primary bond market, while “unpleasant,” would, as one said, “do anything to really shake the Russian economy.” To complete the choreography, the Russian side then limited itself to diplomatic retaliation proportionate to the US expulsion of Russian diplomats, not least, because, as Foreign Minister Lavrov admitted, Russia does not have “comparable [economic] leverage over the United States,” but also because Russia too does not want to escalate tensions. And within days Kremlin speakers were shifting attention to the summit planned for June and noting that the two presidents agreed that a serious dialogue was necessary. 

Promising as these signs are the perils remain. Three in particular. First, while the tensions over the Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border and over the state of Navalny’s health have subsided, they illustrate how easily events can take a wrong turn and send US-Russians reeling in the opposite direction. Their recrudescence or whatever may be the next unexpected moment of tension remains a permanent threat to any fledgling effort to move relations in a more constructive direction. Second, skeptical attitudes in both countries continue to stress how bad relations are and how powerful the forces are that justify this pessimism. Dmitri Medvedev’s recent RIA-Novosti essay harking back to the Cold War and accusing the Biden administration of imitating its worst excesses is scarcely an isolated view in Russia, and its parallel opposite version still dominates attitudes in the United States. 

Third, and most important, the policy path both Moscow and Washington appear to be embracing rests on an exceedingly delicate balance. Both now speak of the need to “normalize” US-Russian relations and re-engage in dialogue. Each, when it retaliates for the sins of the other, now stresses its restrained response—and its desire to avoid adding to the wreckage. But the problem inheres not only in the inevitable tension between a policy that, on the one hand, seeks to explore areas of cooperation, while, on the other hand, that focuses on countering and punishing the other side’s malign actions. What poses a particularly tangible risk stems from the threat accompanying each side’s recent asserted restraint. Both Washington and Moscow, while underscoring that they did less than they might have in order to avoid an “escalatory cycle,” also warn there is much more they can and will do, if what they dislike continues or increases. Because neither government is likely to change course or abandon any particular action under pressure from the other side, a downward tit-for-tat spiral remains all-too possible. 

If these dangers are to be minimized and progress achieved, leadership in both countries will have to do something they have not done before. They will have to compartmentalize the way they think about and deal with the two-sided policy they are confronting. Ordinarily when countries pursue two-track policies, the hope is that the two tracks will be mutually reinforcing and together they will produce a positive outcome. That will surely not be the case in US-Russian relations. On the contrary, if they want to alter the course they are on, each will have to labor to prevent the effects from one dimension of policy—the hardline measures taken to deter and punish the other side—from constantly intruding on and poisoning efforts to reach agreement in areas where cooperation is possible. In short, policy should be designed to minimize the negative synergy between the two tracks and trust that reaching agreement on the second track will create a positive synergy on the other track by reducing the impulse to react to the other side’s misdeeds in the harshest fashion possible. 

Compartmentalizing the policy response to another country is not an alien or unrealistic idea. The United States and Russia have often done so. Russia, for example, currently does it in two striking cases: In its relations with Turkey and with Israel. Israeli experts, such as Vera Michlin-Shapir, have explicitly argued that the “cooperative and even friendly relationship” between the two countries “compartmentalizes points of friction and avoids crossing red lines.” The two countries have managed to work around the obstacle that Russia’s key allies in the Middle East are Israel’s major enemies as well as the pressure on Israel to protect its primary alliance with the United States without fully subscribing to US anti-Russian actions. 

Compartmentalization, however, can only be an imperfect and highly vulnerable recourse of uncertain duration. To achieve a more durable and substantial outcome, something else is necessary. Alas, it may not be within the capability of governments, given the short time horizons that guide their policy choices. What both governments need to do is more directly and effectively integrate short-run considerations with longer-run objectives. They should start by assessing where they want the relationship to be seven or eight years from now, setting realistic expectations in a workable time frame. The assessment should focus on the relationship’s critical dimensions: what progress toward increased strategic stability in their nuclear relationship would each government envisage as a feasible goal and what role would they want Russia and the United States to be playing if an increasingly complex and dangerous multipolar nuclear world is to be managed? Eight years down the road what would each want the configuration of factors shaping European security to be, and can they imagine a US-Russian interaction that helps to promote that outcome? Presumably each wants the change taking place in and around the Eurasian core to be stable and peaceful; if so, what plausible framework would allow, if not cooperative, then at least non-competitive approaches to potentially disruptive change? If they think hard, what would they want the dynamics to be in the trilateral US-Russia-China relationship, and in the competition that each now sees between democratic and autocratic systems, would they prefer progress toward a modus vivendi rather than an intensifying and unstable strategic rivalry? 

In integrating the short- with the long-run, the challenge for each country would then be how to address immediate problems—Ukraine, Syria, interference in domestic politics, energy security, etc.—in ways that mitigate these concerns without damaging any chance of reaching these longer-term goals. Because each government’s preferred vision of the best they could hope for seven or eight years from now, were they to go through the exercise, will doubtlessly be different, a primary purpose of a “strategic stability dialogue” would be to compare these visions and wrestle in earnest with the obstacles to reconciling them. As a first step, the United States and Russia might focus on what should be the easiest areas for accommodation: what level of collaboration could they anticipate the two countries achieving in dealing with climate change and health pandemics eight years from now, and what steps should they now take to move in that direction? 

The reality, of course, is that neither the United States nor Russia does that, nor have they at any point tried to do that, and maybe for a host of reasons they cannot do that. If that be the case, then, because a broader perspective is desperately needed if the two countries are to begin unfreezing the iceberg, the expert community in the two countries has a responsibility—a responsibility it has not accepted to this point—to develop that framework, undertake the analysis, and demonstrate how an agenda that integrates short-run policy imperatives with realistic intermediate-range goals can be formulated.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.