Editor’s Note: Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.
A Russian leader has already congratulated US President-elect Joe Biden on winning the presidential election. “I have met with him several times,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, on Nov. 8. “I got the impression that he understands the importance of relations with Russia. I hope that Joe Biden will strive to normalize relations and recover trust between our countries.”
Contrast these generous sentiments with the brooding silence that has emanated from the Kremlin’s current occupant since the US presidential election was called for Biden.
Soon, Biden will assume the US presidency — and with it, the headache of dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Since 2014, the United States and Russia have been at loggerheads, if not quite at war. In that year, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine elicited American sanctions and a US-led effort to isolate Russia diplomatically. More points of contention unfolded in the following years: Russia and the United States disagree sharply about Syria’s future and have clashed more than once in the Middle East. Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election will not be forgotten or forgiven by Biden or his administration.
Although he was vice president during the 2009 attempt at a “reset” of US-Russian relations, as president, Biden will go to great lengths to avoid linking the words Russia and “reset.” Rejecting President Trump’s friendly posture toward Putin, the Biden administration will change gears and approach Putin with caution and skepticism. Biden’s administration is likely to pressure Russia via sanctions when conflict arises, to decry Putin’s authoritarianism, and to shore up the NATO alliance.
When it comes to Russia, Biden will face a series of challenges. His administration will have to contend with a Russian military presence in Ukraine, in Georgia, in Syria, in Libya and now in Azerbaijan. Russia is likely to grow closer with China in the coming years, as US-China tensions rise, posing a serious strategic dilemma for Biden. Moscow and Beijing may not be allies, but they share the goal of diminishing America’s international role and will likely work in tandem to hem Washington in.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s soothing phrases about normalization are not delusional. A veteran of the Cold War, Biden does understand the importance of relations with Russia. In the Senate, he was an eyewitness to the Cold War’s end, including the rigorous diplomacy that enabled US President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, to manage that conflict’s soft landing. Therein lie important lessons for the future.
Consider Gorbachev’s basic idea. Diplomacy between Russia and the United States is necessary. This should not imply a rush to presidential summit meetings or misplaced hopes for a grand bargain. Rather, a good start would be to build steady, sustained mid-level connections between the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense. In fact, those mid-level connections would mirror the way in which the US pursues diplomacy with other competitors today and the kind of constructive communication that the US and the Soviet Union practiced throughout much of the Cold War.
Since 2014, US policy toward Russia has been muddled by an accumulation of sanctions without a coherent and coordinated strategy. Those sanctions — some levied by Congress, others by the executive — have come to be seen in Russia as endless and inevitable. A Biden administration should be ready to explain the Russian actions required to roll them back. Under Biden, the US would do well to show willingness to give if Russia does too. To accomplish any of this, though, the United States must have access to Russian interlocutors, and the conversations held must be credible on both sides. That takes effort and time.
A sobering lesson from the past is that the United States and Russia have often mistaken the other’s defense for offense. Washington frames its current policy toward Russia as defensive — NATO as a defensive alliance, a commitment to defend Ukraine, the need to defend democracy from Russian interference. Meanwhile, Russia frames its policy toward the United States as defensive — restraining an advancing NATO and constraining a global hegemon that holds many of the military and economic cards. Yet both countries feel threatened by precisely these “defensive” postures and compelled to improve their defenses, forming a vicious cycle of provocation. For the world’s two nuclear superpowers, the potential for unintended escalation is terrifying. Sustained communication mitigates that risk.
Finally, the Biden administration should prioritize people-to-people ties. Putin may prove intransigent for the next four years, and confrontations may widen, but it is still worth encouraging contact between Americans and Russians. Even if the United States is a democracy and Russia is not (despite the elections it holds), no clash of civilizations is predestined, and none should be desired. Generating good will should be the aim of US cultural diplomacy, which would benefit from more support for official exchanges like the Open World Leadership Center run by the US Library of Congress, the State Department’s programs for young leaders, and scientific exchanges, as well as private initiatives like the 60-year-old US-Russian Dartmouth Conference, and the Fort Ross Dialogue.
Indeed, culture and civilization are bonds that Russia and the United States hold in common, as shown by centuries of mutual influence in art, literature and music. Impressing this point on both sides is a humane investment in the future.
At home, Biden has already called for dialogue instead of demonization, between opposing camps in US politics. He should adopt this approach in his foreign policy, especially toward Russia, which is an easy country for Americans to demonize.
Russia poses a challenge for the US, and in some cases a threat, but it is far from all-powerful, and complicated social and cultural forces are swirling there, as President Putin ages and as questions arise over what will come after his leadership eventually ends. Putin exploits anti-Americanism for domestic political gain, and while he might struggle to deal with a less contentious, less zero-sum US-Russian relationship, his eventual successor might be grateful for that, if it can be attained in the next four years.