The writer is vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs on the US National Security Council staff
The main question hanging over Wednesday’s meeting in Geneva between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin is what, if anything, the two men are prepared to put on the table to create, in Biden’s phrasing, a more predictable and stable relationship.
Biden’s team rightly points to the extension of the New Start arms control treaty after his inauguration as proof that limited engagement can sometimes pay off for both countries. A joint effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which benefits from Russia’s technical co-operation in partnership with other countries, could provide similar validation. The US is also seeking Putin’s forbearance as it pulls out of Afghanistan and tries to place some forces elsewhere in the region.
The US has largely been stuck on the back foot since the crisis in Ukraine erupted more than seven years ago. Putin has learned that it pays to keep Russia’s adversaries off balance. Whether it’s by filling vacuums in global hotspots or playing on the west’s internal divisions, he has shown repeatedly that an assertive foreign policy doesn’t have to cost much to be effective and sustainable. His modus operandi leans heavily on surprises and provocations that force adversaries to deal with him on his terms.
Russia’s military build-up in and around Ukraine a few months ago illustrates how this game works. By staging a war scare, Putin sought to pre-empt a much anticipated wave of US sanctions stemming from Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election, the SolarWinds hack and the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. The thinly disguised message: be careful, I can make life miserable for the west in places chosen by myself. The only way to make sure things don’t get really out of hand is to talk to me directly. This is the true genesis of the Geneva meeting.
Unfortunately for Biden, the perception that Putin is under greater pressure at home is wrong. To be sure, the regime’s poor handling of the pandemic is a problem. With new infection numbers climbing, Moscow’s mayor ordered most workers to stay at home this week and businesses to shut down. High rates of vaccine hesitancy undermine potential benefits from the splashy rollout of the Sputnik V vaccine (over whose efficacy doubts linger). But Putin is a smart enough autocrat to make underlings take the rap for these setbacks.
With oil prices at two-year highs, the Russian government’s coffers are being replenished. The brutal treatment of Navalny showed people inclined to participate in street protests that the authorities mean business. The scale and ferocity of repression far exceeds any threat posed by recent protests. In this environment, Putin feels emboldened. The regime is telling younger Russians, who do not care for him that much, that they are free to seek their fortune elsewhere. In an ageing society like Russia, the stability and paternalism that Putin embodies still find plenty of takers.
In these circumstances, Biden and other western leaders must realise that they cannot make Putin behave better by indulging his need for attention or providing reassurances about his fear of US-backed regime change. Putin will not change his ways, because this is how he creates leverage even against a vastly stronger yet risk-averse power like the US. It’s how he stays relevant.
Yet Putin is not reckless. He carefully calibrates his moves to avoid an outright confrontation with the US. The Syria operation was launched after it became clear that the Obama administration would not intervene to topple Bashar al-Assad. The spate of ransomware attacks by Russian criminal groups is now unlocking a US-Russian conversation about cyber security that Putin has sought for years.
What the Kremlin will respond to is a US strategy that conveys resolve when our vital interests or personnel are at risk, that enhances US and allied military capabilities and that reinforces the credibility of deterrence. That is how we can best get the attention of the hard men in the Kremlin. In other realms, the most we can hope for probably is the re-establishment of a handful of channels of communication, along with decent risk management and efforts to avoid conflict in areas where we may bump into each other.
The Biden team has many pressing issues on its agenda. They may soon find that the only stable and predictable element in the relationship with Moscow is the corrosive force of mistrust and disappointment.