The challenge of US-Russia relations in the Biden-Putin era

Ruth Deyermond,
Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Post-Soviet Security,
King’s College London,
The United Kingdom

For thirty years, every new US president has attempted to improve the US-Russia relationship and has failed to do so. Each US presidency since the collapse of the USSR has ended with relations in a worse condition than they were at the start. Breaking this cycle would be a major achievement for the Biden administration, and even if relations cannot be significantly improved, there is a wish to stabilise them. In order to achieve this, the Biden administration has committed itself to a largely pragmatic approach towards Russia. However, the legacy of past interactions, Russia’s continuing destabilisation activities and domestic abuses, and the Biden administration’s focus on Russia and China as strategic threats make stability and pragmatic engagement a continuing challenge.

The relationship between the US and Russia – often neglected by analysts and policymakers for the first twenty years after the end of the Cold War – has re-emerged in the last decade as an issue of critical importance for European security and for international stability. Issues including the Russian government’s involvement in the Syrian conflict; its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine; the growing militarisation of the Arctic; and Russian interference in the domestic politics of NATO states, including the US itself, have all been tied in different ways to the relationship between Moscow and Washington D.C.

After a short-lived attempt by the Obama administration to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, the relationship had deteriorated dramatically by the mid-2010s, culminating in Russian governmental interference in the 2016 US presidential election in favour of the candidacy of Donald Trump. The Russian political elite hoped and expected that Trump’s election would see a significant improvement in relations with the US, and that it would lead to the lifting of Ukraine- and election-related sanctions.

Ultimately, however, despite Trump’s stated admiration for Vladimir Putin and his repeated claim that “getting along with Russia would be a good thing”, the US-Russia relationship failed to improve and sanctions remained in place. Suspicions about Trump’s relationship with the Russian government led Congress to block his ability to lift sanctions, and ultimately to his first impeachment. Nevertheless, on some issues – notably arms control and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to the European Union – the Trump administration adopted a more combative approach to Russia than its predecessor. Thus, for several very different reasons, by the end of Trump’s presidency in January 2021, US-Russia relations were, once again, at a historic low point.

The Biden presidency allows the US to draw a line under the Russia-related difficulties of the Trump years, but it has offered less opportunity for a fresh start than any of its recent predecessors. For the first time since George H. W. Bush’s election in 1988, the new president is the former vice president of a previous administration, with significant diplomatic experience in that role. Biden was involved in the Obama era ‘reset’ with Russia and had engaged with Putin and other senior Russian government figures in that capacity. There was thus no scope for a ‘honeymoon period’ in presidential-level interactions – on the contrary, Biden began his presidency with diplomatically unhelpful remarks about Putin having “no soul” and being “a killer”.

From the start of his presidency, Biden has been clear that he wants to hold the Russian government to account for its international and domestic failures, to recognise that strategic competition with Russia and China is one of the major foreign policy challenges confronting the US, and to engage pragmatically with Russia on key issues such as strategic stability.

This is a difficult circle to square.

In pursuit of the first objective, the Biden administration has re-engaged with the issue of Russia’s democratic and human rights abuses, which were neglected by Trump. The administration has been sharply critical of the treatment of political opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and Biden reported raising the issue of human rights in Russia at his first summit meeting with Putin in June.

The administration has also taken a strong line on Russian destabilising activity outside its borders, including cyber attacks on the US. In April, it introduced new sanctions in response to what it characterised as harmful Russian activities, including the Solar Winds hack discovered in late 2020. Russian cyber attacks were reportedly one of the key issues raised by Biden at the June summit.

The Biden administration has also committed to supporting Ukraine against ongoing Russian aggression, announcing an additional $60 million in defence aid during Ukrainian president Zelensky’s September visit to the White House – in itself, a notable diplomatic show of support by Biden. Given the central importance of the ongoing Ukraine conflict to the collapse of US-Russia relations in and after 2014, this has implications for the administration’s engagement with Russia.

At the same time, however, the administration has emphasised that it would like to develop “a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with U.S. interests”. Biden has made it clear that he wishes to re-engage with Russia on the issue of arms control – traditionally, the bedrock of Moscow-Washington relations. One of the first acts of his presidency was the extension of the New START treaty, which is almost the last remaining piece of the old arms control regime. In April, Biden and Putin announced their intention to develop a “strategic stability dialogue” and reiterated this aim at their summit meeting. The stated intention is to ensure predictability on nuclear issues, in order to reduce the threat of war.

Given the mistrust and hostility over other issues, it is unclear whether a stable and predictable relationship between the US and Russia is possible, not least because of mutual concerns about destabilization in other areas. Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s intention to engage pragmatically with the Russian government in areas of shared concern while asserting both its interests and its values in relation to key issues appears to be the only viable path forward. Although the chances of success may seem low, it is important to recognise that other approaches – that either neglect values and allies in pursuit of a better relationship with Russia or that take an unreservedly hostile approach – are likely to be far more damaging to US-Russia relations, to European security, and to international stability. Thus far, the Biden administration approach to relations with Russia appears to be the one most like to offer any chance of improvement in any of these fields.


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