Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, every American president has come to office seeking to improve Washington’s relations with Russia – and each of them has left that post years later, having failed to achieve the goal.
Bill Clinton was once pals with Boris Yeltsin until NATO expansion, US airstrikes in Iraq, and wars in Bosnia and Kosovo rocked their personal chemistry. George W. Bush had doe eyes when he looked at Vladimir Putin, only to learn after Russia invaded Georgia that the former KGB agent was not the true Democratic reformer he once was. first thought. Barack Obama had to turn the page with Dmitry Medvedev and even managed to sign a new arms control agreement with the Russian president. The bilateral relationship, however, soured over a litany of disputes, from Syria and Ukraine to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Waiting for a miracle, the president Joe Biden is bound to follow the same path as his predecessors.
In April 2021, Biden spoke of his desire to establish “a stable and predictable relationship” with Russia. The word “stable” was instructive, showing a dose of realpolitik. While Washington and Moscow were never going to agree on every issue, they could at least try to limit their disagreements and respect each other’s core interests. Biden’s June 2021 summit with Putin, where both leaders promised to work on strategic stability, was a tangible sign that the world’s top nuclear powers wanted to move forward.
The war in Ukraine completely upset any hope the United States and Russia had of a normal relationship. Due to Russia’s despicable conduct over the past nine weeks, relations between Washington and Moscow are now at their lowest point since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “empire difficulty”. The very idea of US and Russian officials talking directly to each other is now anathema, with politics in the two capitals calling for a more confrontational approach. The Kremlin sees the United States as the brains and muscle behind an anti-Russian coalition that seeks to use Ukraine to create a quagmire for Russian forces. The United States and its allies, meanwhile, view Russia under Putin as a highly destructive revisionist power living in a dystopian fantasy.
The past few weeks have done nothing to bring the temperature down. Despite high-profile defeats on the ground, thousands of casualties and the prospect of Russia’s worst economic recession in more than a quarter-century, Putin is as determined to crush Ukraine’s military today as he was. was when the war started for over two months. from. The Russian military’s indiscriminate use of artillery, airstrikes and other heavy weapons inside and outside Donbas illustrates Putin’s urgency after repeated slips.
The United States and its NATO allies have shown as much commitment to supporting the Ukrainians as the Russians to defeating them. If Putin thought attacking Ukraine would turn NATO into a dysfunctional, bickering family, he has seriously miscalculated. Washington and Europe as a whole are betting that a combination of military assistance to kyiv and ever-tightening sanctions against the Russian economy will force Putin to either give up his business or sue for a settlement. Biden’s $33 billion funding request on behalf of Ukraine (including $20 billion for security aid), Poland’s delivery of Soviet-era tanks to bolster ground forces Ukraine and Germany’s move away from Russian energy will further increase the cost to Moscow, economically and militarily.
The “stable and predictable relationship” envisioned by Biden a year ago is simply irrelevant as long as the war in Ukraine continues. Even when the war does eventually end, US-Russian relations could remain in a period of intense antagonism. Given the utter contempt with which Moscow has pursued the war, it’s hard to imagine Biden sitting down with Putin again.
The problem, however, is that Russia is here to stay regardless. It can no more be desired or ignored than it can be transformed into a liberal democratic utopia. Even if Putin were to somehow wake up and decide to transfer his authority to a successor, Russia is likely to remain a sufficiently formidable power with its own distinct set of national interests, geopolitical ambitions and senses. self – much of which is in conflict with the United States. position. The United States can vehemently disagree with Russian foreign policy and stage an effective pushback if necessary. What Washington cannot do is be naïve and think it can pressure Russia to behave the way the United States wants it to behave.
During a chat with NPR, former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller made an astute observation: “I think at some point we’re going to have to reopen…discussions with Russia, at least on limiting and controlling nuclear weapons,” adding that it is not in America’s interest “to have a big pariah state with nuclear weapons.”
Balancing the desire to help Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression while maintaining open lines of communication with the Kremlin will go a long way in determining whether the United States can still practice good statecraft.
Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist who has also written for Newsweek and the Spectator.
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