Biden and Putin shouldn’t be discussing things they can’t fix
- State Secretary Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will use part of their meeting this week to prepare for an even bigger meeting this summer.
- A summit between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin should focus on topics on which they can agree on something rather than rehashing irreconcilable differences.
- Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and Foreign Affairs Columnist at Newsweek.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet at an Arctic Council Ministerial today, the two will use some of their time together to prepare for an even bigger meeting this summer.
Potential summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin set to take place in Europe, would come at a particularly turbulent time in US-Russian relations.
The two countries, however, do not have the luxury of taking the path of least resistance and allowing bilateral relations to wither in a permanent state of animosity. Washington and Moscow may not love each other, but neither can they.
For Biden, a summit with his Russian counterpart would be the best opportunity to date to at least inject some predictability into the US-Russian relationship – a goal that the president himself stressed during his visit. Speech of April 15 to the White House.
Putin is the stereotypical autocratic nationalist, a man who puffs his chest, exaggerates the power of Russia and diffuses an aura of Russian determination around the world. But the point is, Russia suffers from a long list of socio-economic problems.
Real disposable income for the average Russian citizen has plummeted five of the last seven years. Russia’s GDP is down 25% since 2013; to $ 1.7 trillion, the Russian economy is less than a tenth of its size the United States and less than half the size of Germany. The gap between the Russian political class and the Russian population is widening, with 75% of Russians skeptical, they can influence the Kremlin’s decision-making.
Domestic issues aside, Russia remains a formidable regional power and has demonstrated to the world that it will use military force (Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015) if Moscow feels that its fundamental security interests are threatened.
While its defense budget cannot compete with the United States or NATO-Europe, Russia doubled its military spending between 2000 and 2017 – much of which was devoted to modernization and procurement. Russia is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and the world’s largest nuclear power, possessing more than 6,200 nuclear warheads.
For the United States and Russia, respecting each other’s basic interests is imperative if both are to move forward. It requires Biden to recognize which problem areas are irreconcilable and which are promising.
The irreconcilable problems are easy to discern. It’s no surprise that Putin is backing down from any topic affecting Russia’s internal affairs. While Biden will likely condemn the persecution of Alexei Navalny and excoriate Putin for crack down on Russian opposition movements, it is highly unlikely that the Russian government will change its behavior on the basis of American pressure.
Ukraine will also be a contentious issue. The United States calls on Moscow to move its forces out of the Donbass and allow Kiev to regain full control of the Russian-Ukrainian border will fall on deaf ears.
In the seven years since Ukraine’s war began in the east, Russia has made it clear that a full military victory for Kiev will not be allowed. The best we can hope for is a reaffirmation of support for the Minsk II peace process – an outcome which is not very satisfactory.
Areas of collaboration, however, are available if both men are willing to enter them.
First, Biden and Putin could use a potential summit to end a cycle of diplomatic escalation that shows no signs of ending. Washington and Moscow have exchanged diplomatic expulsions tit-for-tat, visa restrictions and entry bans this year.
These evictions are largely emotional reactions that do little to resolve ongoing conflicts like cyber attacks and disinformation operations and in fact only heighten grievances. Biden and Putin should at least come to an agreement on stopping the escalation cycle as it is now.
Ideally, a mutually acceptable arrangement on rescinding these measures would be reached – some of which left ordinary Americans and Russians In the cold.
Second, the United States and its NATO allies should resuscitate the NATO-Russia Council. This joint council, formed in 2002 bringing together decision-makers from NATO and Russia for consultations on areas of mutual interest, has been in a state of purgatory since the annexation of Russia Crimean.
The tensions only built up in the years that followed. But it is precisely in times of strained relations that consultative mechanisms like the NATO-Russia Council are so important.
Third and most importantly, strategic stability should be at the top of any Biden-Putin agenda. Washington and Moscow have already had some success in this regard, when they both agreed to extend the New START agreement, which caps the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons and launchers.
Biden himself has initiated a strategic stability dialogue with Moscow which, in his words, “continue cooperation in arms control and security”. The Russian Foreign Ministry has suggested such an initiative was possible. Any strategic discussion will prove remarkably difficult. Yet the alternative of not having discussions is even worse.
US-Russian relations will be strained for some time. But given that Washington and Moscow hold 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, Biden would be wise to approach Russia not as an ally, friend or adversary, but as a nation to engage with, that we like it or not.
Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and Foreign Affairs Columnist at Newsweek.