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Relations between Russia and the transatlantic community are at their worst since the breakup of the Soviet Union. While Moscow had hopes that the Donald Trump presidency would lead to improved ties, the character of the relationship remained largely unchanged.Indeed, confronted by Russia’s ongoing efforts to manipulate the affairs of its neighbours, suppress domestic opposition, and conduct cyber attacks and interference operations, the US strengthened its sanctions, while the remaining European support for sustaining contacts with Russia has begun to dissipate, notably in Germany. In October, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went so far as to suggest that Russia might even drop all dialogue with the EU.
Past efforts to build a functioning relationship with Moscow have quickly foundered, undone by Russia actions to violate international norms. The US–Russia reset launched in 2009 by President Barack Obama ended in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. More recently, President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to build a new European strategy on Russia through engagement with Moscow has floundered over the crisis in Belarus and the poisoning of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Instead, today the focus is on Russian efforts to disrupt Western societies through disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, assassinations of opposition figures and election interference.
A New White House, Old Problems
Although Moscow views positively the prospect of a less mercurial US foreign policy under President Joe Biden, from the outset there will be areas of tension. Ahead of the recent presidential election, Biden indicated that Russia constitutes the ‘biggest threat’ to the US. Biden has signalled that a renewed commitment to democracy promotion and human rights will again be a central part of US foreign policy. The US will also be more engaged with pro-Western neighbours of Russia – Georgia and Ukraine – and looking to support opposition forces in Belarus. This will inevitably renew concerns in Moscow about what is seen as Western-orchestrated ‘colour revolutions’ with geopolitical aims. With the US Congress ill-disposed to the government of Vladimir Putin, existing sanctions are likely to remain in place and even be tightened on Russia, while the Biden administration is also likely to strengthen anti-corruption measures focused on Russia.
The breakdown in relations between Russia and the transatlantic community constitutes a dangerous situation. Russia is a leading military force with a massive nuclear arsenal and with important diplomatic reach. Within Eurasia, Russia continues to be a major actor, critically on regional conflicts, as highlighted by its role in brokering the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the deployment of military forces to stabilise the region.
Despite Western efforts to constrain Russia’s hostile actions through sanctions, in recent years Russia has extended its reach beyond the framework of European security.Russia is today a significant actor in the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and is looking to strengthen its role in the Gulf, Africa and the Asia-Pacific, including deepening the strategic relationship with China.
Russia’s continued ability to disrupt and destabilise has become a neuralgic issue for Europe.The failure to prevent Russian hostile actions has repeatedly laid bare Europe’s ambitions to play a major role in its neighbourhood. At the same time, divisions among European states about how to deal with Russia have undermined political consensus. Indications during the Trump years that the US security commitment to Europe was wavering have played into this growing fragmentation and insecurity in Europe about its ability to respond effectively to Russia.
Three Priorities for US Russia Policy
Against this background, the incoming Biden administration will need to articulate a clear Russia policy from the outset. This should be an approach that provides both an effective means to counter and manage Russia, and also serves to reinforce the damaged transatlantic relationship. This policy should have three key elements.
While NATO’s ability to defend itself has been strengthened following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the Trump years have sowed doubts about the solidity of the transatlantic relationship. Thus, President Biden will first need to be unequivocal about an unwavering US commitment to mutual security and to deterrence in Europe, notably through NATO. This will reassure European allies and signal to Moscow a resolve to counter any future aggression.
Renewing the transatlantic relationship cannot be, however, simply about more US resources for European security. The US should aim to lead a serious discussion with European partners about what is actually required to provide effective deterrence for Europe. European allies will need to step up their commitment and spending on defence. Such a mutual re-engagement is vital to renewing and modernising the transatlantic alliance; it is also the best means to signal resolve to Moscow and to leverage dialogue.
Second, the US should look to match steady pressure on Russia as a result of strengthened deterrence with efforts to engage Russia in a conversation on how to manage the confrontational relationship. There are clear dangers in the current hostility and both sides have an interest in avoiding war, as well as a costly and destabilising arms race. A priority is to restore a minimally functioning arms control regime. The extension of the New START treaty is an immediate goal, and there may be opportunities to discuss wider issues of strategic stability.
In addition to the challenges of European security, there are a variety of issues where it makes sense to explore cooperation with Russia, including on climate change, international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear programme and managing instability in the Middle East (specifically Syria and Libya). These discussions may provide opportunities to widen the conversation to other areas.
Beyond the twin tracks of deterrence and dialogue with Russia there is a third area where US leadership will be important to Europe. The transatlantic community desperately needs to rebuild a strategic approach to Russia. While the US and Europe have maintained a strong rhetorical opposition to Russian actions, the West has become reactive, overly reliant on sanctions and is struggling to set the agenda. Too often there has been a failure to anticipate Russia’s actions, to understand Russian interests and to appreciate security dynamics in Eurasia. As a result, today there is a danger that the approach to Russia is increasingly driven by hostility to Moscow rather than a strategy to advance transatlantic interests.
Putin’s Edifice Under Pressure
This is important because there are indications that Russia’s international position is shifting, and this may require Moscow to seek new relations. Key pillars of the order that Putin set in place over the past 20 years are under pressure. The regional security of Eurasia is changing, and Russia is having to contend with a vastly more complex landscape. Faced by recent crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow has struggled to formulate effective responses and has looked overstretched.
Outside powers – the transatlantic community, Turkey and China – have made major inroads across the region. The recent Russia–Turkey compact on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict highlights Moscow’s need to make deals with competitors to remain relevant. As a result, President Putin’s ambitions of leading a regional integration process and promoting a Greater Eurasia agenda centred on Russia have faded.
Russia’s efforts to pivot to Asia to counter the deterioration in relations with the transatlantic community as a result of the 2014 Ukraine crisis are also running into difficulties. Today, Moscow faces the emergence of bipolar Sino-US competition in Asia, and the rise of a new Indo-Pacific regional security order led by Washington and its allies. These developments are drawing Moscow’s regional partners, notably India, into new formats (such as the Quad) where Russia has no role. Moscow is anxious not to get caught between US–China competition but nor does it want to end up marginalised with a sole option of being a junior partner to China.
Finally, there is the looming issue of leadership. Recent constitutional amendments suggest that Putin is preparing to stay in office, but he is already 68 – young perhaps by US leadership standards – but Russia is nevertheless approaching a strategic moment about its future direction and a perilous political transition. Even if Putin decides to stay in office, the next generation of potential leaders will be preparing in the wings. This will create new political dynamics in Russia.
All of these issues highlight that Russia’s position is not static and that Moscow faces significant challenges. If the transatlantic community is to become more effective at managing Russia, it will have to become much better at anticipating the strategic windows that are opening up, and agile in developing forward-looking policies to set its own agenda around those opportunities. US leadership will be crucial in leading this key conversation about Russia’s future with Europeans, and it should start from the outset of the Biden administration.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Joe Biden shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Courtesy of White House/David Lienemann