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What’s the Future of US–Russia relations?

The latest from our “Adults in a Room" series.

Words: Olya Oliker, Trey Herr, Miranda Priebe, and Julian Mueller-Kaler
Pictures: Rainier Ridao

Editor’s Note: “Adults in a Room” is a new series in collaboration with The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI). The series stems from NAEI’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. The goal of this series is to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee, without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

What are the experts talking about this June? Though the June 16 summit meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, did not lead to many concrete takeaways, it left a lot of open questions about where US-Russian relations go from here. Did the respectful nature of Biden and Putin’s press conferences signal the potential for future agreements? Does the Biden administration have the foreign policy bandwidth or the domestic capacity to meaningfully change the relationship with Russia? What areas will the coming strategic stability and cyber talks focus on?

The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI) brought together a number of experts to discuss the summit, and think about where the US-Russia relationship might go in the near future. The discussion led to a couple of big-picture takeaways. First, participants suggested that the Biden team’s approach to Russia is less about European security in itself, and more about smoothing away the problem in order to better focus on China. Second, participants explored the question of what agreements could be achieved if America is truly in a “post-treaty” era. But with general agreement that the summit went as well as could have been expected, the experts were mostly focused on concrete areas for progress. Four of the participants expanded on their thoughts about the Geneva summit and its implications below:

Olya Oliker, Program Director, Europe and Central Asia Center, International Crisis Group

While the fundamental reason that the United States and Russia don’t get along is that they disagree on a wide range of issues, their ability to understand one another has also been compromised by myths about the other prevalent in both countries. Russians often argue that Republican administrations in the United States are better for the bilateral relationship than Democratic ones, despite all evidence to the contrary. Some American policymakers believe that Putin is at the root of all bilateral problems, and thus fail to see the consistency in Russian foreign policy goals over time.

When Russians or Americans describe the other as a declining power, they often overlook the important truth that, declining or not, each retains substantial capacity in the here and now.

When Russians or Americans describe the other as a declining power, they often overlook the important truth that, declining or not, each retains substantial capacity in the here and now. Similarly, those who debate the historical reasons for each country’s perceived aggressiveness may derive policy lessons that are impracticable today. Finally, both Russian and American analysts and officials who express hope that arms control dialogues will lay groundwork for a more collaborative relationship are right that these can help prevent and mitigate problems. However, arms control works in part because it accepts an inherently adversarial situation. As such, it’s unlikely to change that dynamic.

Trey Herr, Director, Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

The US–Russia summit didn’t have much cyber… and that’s ok. The spike in questions to the White House about “Russia + cybersecurity” in the weeks before the meeting seems to have been far more about political and foreign policy journalists looking for a Russian government role behind the cybercriminal groups associated with the Colonial Pipeline and JBS ransomware incidents. Asking the question repeatedly about Russian state involvement in these attacks helped shape expectations that cyber should be a large part of the Geneva meeting leading to questions about why there wasn’t more cyber discussed.

Trying to treat cybersecurity as an exceptional topic for structured negotiations akin to strategic arms limitation is bad policy. Nuclear weapons were a domain of research, manufacturing, strategic theory, and constant posturing for a potential conflict. Cybersecurity is a domain of constant engagement, characterized daily by intense competition below the threshold of war; much more like a boxing match than a standoff in some spaghetti western. Cybersecurity is embedded in the US–Russian relationship, but it needs to be normalized as part of the broader national security dialogue, merely one domain of statecraft among many.

Miranda Priebe, Director, Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy RAND Corporation

Russia’s insecurity is a key driver of its foreign policy. Russian concerns about US capabilities and intentions run deep, especially due to continued US involvement in the security affairs of Europe. As a result, modest changes in US policy toward Russia, such as the 2009 US–Russia Reset, have done little to change Russian threat perceptions. The current moment, however, may present a new opportunity.

The Biden administration sees China as the nation’s primary threat, so seeks to focus increasingly on the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, the administration’s approach to Russia may increasingly be driven by its desire to shift resources toward the Asia-Pacific. If the administration makes concrete changes in US policies toward Russia and Europe to enable its China policy, then Russian insecurity may be reduced. Lower Russian threat perceptions are unlikely to fully address all US–Russian differences, but it may put the two countries on a more stable footing.

Julian Mueller-Kaler, Resident Fellow, Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

The ramifications of the Biden–Putin summit in Geneva, designed to stabilize deteriorating US–Russian relations, were seen all over Europe. On the eve of this week’s EU leaders’ summit, Merkel and Macron led an initiative to step up dialogue with Putin again. Even though the effort ran into fierce opposition, particularly by the Baltic countries and Poland, it illustrates that forums of strategic dialogue are cautiously explored again by European leaders.

Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, EU summits with Russia have been put on hold. Yet the list of potential problems is long and dialogue is increasingly necessary to solve existing conflicts. The Biden administration’s latest decisions on Nord Stream 2, and the reinstatement of an American ambassador to Moscow, indicate a certain willingness by the current US administration that talks about a comprehensive European security architecture can resume after years of escalating tensions and mutual accusations.

Olya Oliker, Trey Herr, Miranda Priebe, and Julian Mueller-Kaler

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