When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met last month with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Reykjavik, it prompted inevitable comparisons with another high-level encounter in Iceland’s capital: the famous October 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that set the stage for the thawing of the Cold War.
As the current American and Russian leaders, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, prepare for their first summit on June 16 in Geneva, prospects are slim for the kind of breakthrough achieved by Reagan and Gorbachev. Tensions remain high due to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of Ukraine; its interference in U.S. elections; its aggressive behavior in cyberspace—including the recent SolarWinds hack, which compromised a range of public and private sector entities across the West—and the sanctions that Washington imposed in response to all those activities.
The Biden-Putin meeting will nonetheless provide an important test of the two countries’ ability to forge what Blinken termed “a more stable and predictable relationship.”
On a handful of issues, notably outlining a future direction for arms control agreements and political arrangements in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in September, genuine progress is possible. The summit also offers an opportunity for frank discussions on two issues that have bedeviled ties for more than a decade and must be addressed in order to achieve stability and predictability: the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s interference in the domestic politics of the U.S. and its allies.
These two issues are highly dangerous because one side or the other views each of them in existential terms. Neither is therefore conducive to resolution. Still, after years of almost perpetual crisis between Washington and Moscow, the time may just be ripe for the tough conversations on both topics necessary to stabilize the relationship.
For Russia, the conflict in Ukraine is not just about who will control the devastated industrial zones in the occupied Donbas region or maintaining an enhanced naval presence in Crimea, but about the complex historical, economic and personal ties between the two states and the validity of Putin’s assertion that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Because of the deep historical and other links between Ukraine and Russia, moreover, the fate of Ukraine’s political transformation could have profound implications for Russia, too. Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders earlier this year was a powerful signal that no solution is possible without Moscow’s buy-in.
For the United States, the conflict remains tied to the aspiration set forth in 1989 by then-President George H.W. Bush, to build a Europe “whole and free,” with states free to choose their own political systems and alliance relationships. The U.S. therefore supports the right of Ukrainians to decide whether to seek membership in the European Union or NATO, while Russia demands a veto. These positions embody two essentially incompatible visions of political order.
Similarly, the question of domestic political interference has enormous stakes and little prospect of resolution. Both Moscow and Washington accuse the other of trying to undermine their respective political systems, either through Russian electoral interference in the U.S. or American support for pro-democracy organizations and opposition figures in Russia. This makes even the maintenance of normal relations difficult.
Moscow’s efforts to undermine confidence in Western democracies grow out of a perception that the U.S. itself has been meddling in Russian politics since the aborted reforms of the 1990s, leading Putin to crack down on civil society and expel U.S.-backed groups like the National Endowment for Democracy for allegedly seeking regime change. In what Russia might have viewed as an attempt to turn the tables, it interfered with the 2016 U.S. election to aid former President Donald Trump. And in 2020, according to the Director of National Intelligence, it also conducted “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy.”
If there is any reason for optimism about U.S.-Russia relations, it stems from what appears to be a recognition on both sides of a need to lower the temperature.
Further complicating the picture is the role of sanctions. While the official U.S. rationale for sanctions is to impose costs on Russia for its transgressions—including the occupation of Ukrainian territory and election interference—Russian officials are inclined to view them as a form of political warfare, aiming to force a split between the state and society, eventually bringing down the regime.
Meanwhile, concern about Trump’s ties to Russia produced rare bipartisan agreement in Congress on enshrining sanctions on Russia into law during his term, leaving the Biden administration limited flexibility to roll them back.
Nevertheless, both Washington and Moscow are going through a transitional period where longstanding political and economic assumptions are under question, and both face other issues requiring urgent high-level attention. If Biden and Putin are able to establish mutually understood “red lines” and provide reassurances around the Ukraine conflict and political interference, it would help the two sides step back from the brink to focus on other concerns.
Unlike Gorbachev, who came into office intent on shaking up a moribund system, Putin has been in power for more than two decades, overseeing a regime that is increasingly paranoid about what it sees as the subversive influence of the outside world. With a slow-growing economy, mounting disaffection and troubles on its periphery, Moscow would benefit from a pause in the confrontation.
So, too, would Washington. While the costs of heightened competition with Russia are bearable, socio-economic and racial tensions, exposed and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, have left the U.S. looking more fragile than at any time in the recent past. The Biden administration has also identified China as “the only competitor potentially capable of … mount[ing] a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system” and would like to focus its resources on that competition.
Neither Moscow nor Washington today has any illusions of a new “reset,” much less a Reagan-Gorbachev style breakthrough. The best possible outcome of the summit in Geneva would be for Biden and Putin to advance their dialogue on arms control and strategic stability, manage existing problems in the relationship and shift the focus to areas of shared concern like stabilizing Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal and addressing the impact of climate change.
They should also aim to achieve limited assurances around the central issues of Ukraine and interference. Russia could provide assurances that it will refrain from further military escalation against Ukraine as long as the 2015 Minsk-II cease-fire remains in place, while also reining in efforts at electoral disruption targeting the United States. Biden’s early steps—referring to Putin as a “killer” in a media interview and imposing additional sanctions over the SolarWinds hack—should give him some political cover to show flexibility, even as he continues to wield sanctions as a source of leverage.
Both sides will also have to manage their respective allies and partners. Biden’s recent decision to waive sanctions against the German company behind the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline helped repair ties with Berlin that eroded under Trump. But it was met with anger by other allies, like Poland, which worries it will strengthen Russian economic leverage. Meanwhile, Belarus’ shocking decision to force down a Ryanair jet in order to kidnap an opposition journalist also produced significant blowback for its ally, Russia—which may or may not have been in on the plot, but has been steadfast in its support of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in its wake.
Crises like the one sparked by Lukashenko are a testament to the extraordinary range of issues where U.S. and Russian interests intersect. Managing the competition over them is never easy, particularly when distrust is so extensive. The upcoming summit is an opportunity to explore whether the accumulated crises of recent years can be managed, if not solved. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and interference in U.S. politics have been extraordinarily destabilizing. Unfortunately, they cannot be undone. They can only be managed diplomatically, which in turn requires frank conversations between leaders.
If there is any reason for optimism about U.S.-Russia relations, it stems from what appears to be a recognition on both sides of a need to lower the temperature and focus on other challenges. It will not be Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik redux, but if Biden and Putin can impart a degree of predictability and stability to what has been a dangerously volatile relationship, they too will have made the world a little safer.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and the author of the forthcoming book, “Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.