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“I don’t think you have a soul.” VP Joe Biden to Vladimir Putin in 2011 meeting

“Russia supplies almost nothing to the U.S. that can’t be bought from other suppliers”; while there are a few minor exceptions, such as goods related to space, “in economic terms, the U.S. almost never thinks about Russia.”  Chris Miller

We have no eternal allies and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.” Lord Palmerston

Treat your friend as if he will one day be your enemy, and your enemy as if he will one day be your friend.” Decimus Laberius, first century B.C.

Today US President Joe Biden is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Given the new lows plowed in the bilateral relationship — so low that both countries’ ambassadors have returned home for consultations — I thought that this would be a good time to add some context to that meeting and perhaps provide some color commentary on their soiree. I will evaluate some misperceptions that continue to exist and then discuss how those misperceptions are being thrust upon the global security landscape across and even beyond Eurasia.

Talks at the presidential level are an important channel of communication, but with so much fractious history between them, this latest meeting between Biden and Putin will undoubtedly be awkward at a personal level. While the summit is unlikely to yield drama like the infamous Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, it is also unlikely to change the downward trajectory of the relationship, even if the administration’s proposal to begin talks on strategic stability and arms control succeeds.

In this week’s More than Meets the Eye, I want to briefly explore the points of contention that impede relations between the USA (also referred to as the West) and Russia. There are several misperceptions between these two political milieus, but there are also significant national interests that exist, and these incongruous agendas could lead one to believe that there will always be a rift between the West and Russia. It is not just President Putin, nor is it former President Trump or current President Biden. The differences span far beyond the impact of individual personas on this geopolitical landscape. There are very distinctive cultural, economic, and sociopolitical differences that continue to drive a wedge between these national entities.

To be clear, this will not be a comprehensive overview of the misperceptions causing the perceived incompatibility of interests. That would require several tomes to do this subject justice. However, I want to examine some significant misperceptions that I believe play a substantial role in the friction that exists, with the hope that a better understanding of the underlying machinations will lead us to a more complete viewpoint of the current and future geopolitical ecosystem.

Review.

After spending most of the 1990s and early 2000s rebuilding their state, regime, economy, and military after the traumatic Soviet collapse, Russia has returned to a prominent place in world politics. Many scholars and policymakers ignored Russia during those years, believing the country was no longer relevant. In a post-9/11 world, American intelligence efforts were focused on counterterrorism and sectarian violence in the Middle East, and Russia was allowed to steadily and quietly put itself back together. Perhaps owing to this neglect, Russia’s resurgence in the twenty-first century has resulted in a large number of misconceptions about its objectives in international politics.

There are two great misperceptions that perpetuate the tensions between the West and Russia. These misperceptions tend to revolve around the intrinsically disparate differences between the national interests of both the USA and Russia.

Russian misperceptions-

It could be argued that the paramount national interest of Russia is the preservation of the current political regime and minimizing chances of Western interference in Russia’s domestic affairs. Allegedly, this preoccupation is nurtured by Russia’s exaggerated misperception that the West deliberately instigates revolutions to cause the downfall of Putin’s regime. Many Russian politicians go as far as to suggest that many Russia-based Western NGOs are managed by the White House and European Commission. This misperception is derived from the robust psychological impact on Russia’s political elite inflicted by the ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. As Krastev and Leonard put it, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was Putin’s 9/11, which exposed that remotely controlled street protests are a substantial threat to his regime. On these grounds, “Russia has been searching for a new European order for over ten years, one that can secure the regime’s survival even after Putin.” 

Furthermore, the latest conservative surge also serves the purpose of keeping Putin’s regime in place, since the explicit advantages of moral conservatism is that it respects social hierarchies, does not call the legitimacy of the Kremlin into question, lacks destabilizing potential, and contradicts liberal values. If cooperation with the West entails at least partial acceptance of its values by Russia, the latter believes that this could significantly undermine the foundations of its authoritarian regime. Therefore, the Kremlin’s acute fear of regime change by dint of revolutions, coupled with the possible consequences of the EU’s ever-encroaching borders upon the Russian periphery, exacerbates Russia’s suspicions toward the West.

Western Misperceptions

One of Washington’s greatest misperceptions has been to intellectually retire Russia from great power status, premised on the idea that it is a power in decline. This misperception is not well-grounded in empirical reality. Russia remains a leading military power, which effectively spends in the range of $150-180 billion annually on defense (in purchasing power parity terms), to say nothing of the fact that it is America’s only real peer in nuclear weapons. Economic stagnation is unlikely to meaningfully reduce those aspects of the state’s capability that make it a challenge to U.S. interests.

Despite the size of its economy, Moscow has exploited its limited resources, whether in terms of diplomatic influence, military might, raw materials, or geographic position, to assert itself internationally and challenge the basic structures and terms of the U.S.-led economic order. Russian leaders spend a fair amount of time reassuring themselves about the greatness and importance of their country. The government’s official foreign policy strategy, announced June 28, 2000, refers to the Russian Federation as “a great power … one of the most influential centers of the modern world … [with a] responsibility for maintaining security in the world both on a global and on a regional level.” Such preening is hard to imagine from, say, Berlin or Tokyo, but Moscow feels the need.

Russia is not a rising power, but that does not diminish its ability to challenge the United States’ either short- or medium-term agendas. Russia retains the power to upend European security, use force outside of its own region, and check or veto U.S. foreign policy globally, and it holds a seat at some of the world’s most significant international institutions. Yes, its economy is much smaller than that of China, let alone America, but its appetite for international action, risk tolerance, and will to use force is significant.

Other Western nation’s misperceptions of Russia include:

  1. Russia’s grand strategy is driven by ideology  
  2. Russia seeks to reconstruct the Soviet Union or Russian Empire. 
  3. Russia seeks to restore a bygone world order 
  4. Putin is an opportunist, not a strategist 

Additional misperceptions that are deeply held by both the USA and its allies and Russia include:

  1. ’Russia and the West want the same thing’ 
  2. ‘Russia was promised that NATO would not enlarge’ 
  3. ‘Russia is not in a conflict with the West’ 
  4. ‘We need a new pan-European security architecture that includes Russia’ 
  5. ‘We need a new pan-European security architecture that includes Russia’ 
  6. ‘The Eurasian Economic Union is a genuine and meaningful counterpart to the EU’ 
  7. ‘The peoples of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are one nation’

A revised U.S. strategy should begin by revising some of its assumptions. First, Russia must be viewed as a significant, enduring challenge to U.S. interests that will not fade away over time. Second, in its current state the U.S.-Russian relationship runs considerable risks for the United States, its allies, and its partners. If unaddressed, the potential consequences of these risks will increase in severity over time. Third, the Kremlin is unlikely to repent and seek forgiveness for its perceived geopolitical sins. Fourth, as much as we might find the current Russian regime unsavory, its successor could prove no better, or, in some cases, even worse. Yes, it is possible that a post-Putin regime will curtail the more egregious behavior, but Washington and Moscow will still likely retain profound policy disagreements and a legacy of antagonistic relations not easily overcome.

Why.

All these incompatibilities have and will continue to persist for decades. They admit no clear solution and may never be solved. But they cannot be allowed to metastasize. That must be Biden’s mandate in Geneva: to begin the arduous journey toward “predictability and stability.” 

This does not mean that Russia is a 10-foot-tall bogeyman. It does mean, however, that the United States needs to gird itself for sustained competition. Russia will not disappear or inevitably become more malleable as a result of macro trends. A serious investment in dealing with Russian power and influence requires recognizing it as a force in global affairs, not just a spoiler or opportunist, and resourcing efforts to improve relations with Moscow today. 

Both Russia and the United States expect the worst from each other, and see the other side as acting aggressively. European allies add to the dynamic, with their own security concerns and interests, shaped by a complex history vis-a-vis Russia. The situation is thus ripe for escalation and misjudgment, but informed changes to U.S. foreign policy can still curtail these potentially disastrous outcomes.

The Russians have demonstrated both in Georgia (2008) and in the Ukraine (2014) that they are prepared to escalate situations with an armed force to sustain their foreign political interests. This makes the Russian/Western relationship unpredictable and the environment for potential conflict a plausible reality.

Action.

U.S. officials must carefully weigh not only the American national interests in working more closely with Russia but also the costs and benefits of failing to do so, keeping in mind Moscow’s capacity to act as a spoiler in a number of areas and on a number of issues that are of vital national interest to Washington.  In our considered judgment, the choice is clear: the United States should pursue a sustainable cooperative relationship with Russia to advance vital American national interests, but do so without illusions regarding either Moscow’s sometimes neo-imperial ambitions or the pace of democratic change in Russia.

The follow-up.

Putin and Biden Curb Their Enthusiasm… https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/14/putin-biden-summit-relations-diplomacy-cold-war-peace/?utm_source=PostUp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=33921&utm_term=Editors%20Picks%20OC&tpcc=33921

IRAN AND VENEZUELA STRENGTHEN TIES AS U.S. LOOKS ON WARILY… https://mailchi.mp/thesoufancenter/iran-and-venezuela-strengthen-ties-as-us-looks-on-warily?e=47e9e33bef

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:  david@morethanmeets.co

Resources.

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https://russiamatters.org/analysis/russias-impact-us-national-interests-stability-international-economy

https://www.lai.lv/viedokli/russias-national-interests-and-foreign-policy-preferences-554

https://nationalinterest.org/feature/us-russian-relations-new-era-40637

https://warontherocks.com/2021/05/expanding-the-scope-for-statecraft-in-u-s-russia-policy/

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Ward S. 2016. How Putin’s desire to restore Russia to great power status matters. The Washington Post. March 6. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/06/how-putins-desire-to-restore-russia-to-great-power-status-matters/ 

Lo B. 2015. Russia and the new world disorder. Royal Institute of international affairs.

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Kortunov. 2016. How not to talk with Russia. European Council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_not_to_talk_with_russia_6053

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/1997-09-01/russia-still-enemy?utm_medium=newsletters&utm_source=fabackstory&utm_content=20210613&utm_campaign=FA%20Backstory_061321%20The%20Backstory:%20Can%20Biden%20and%20Putin%20Mend%20a%20Broken%20Relationship?&utm_term=fa-backstory-2019

Gabuev. 2015. A “soft alliance”? Russia-China relations after the Ukraine crisis. European Council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR126_-_A_Soft_Alliance_Russia-China_Relations_After_the_Ukraine_Crisis.pdf

https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/four-myths-about-russian-grand-strategy

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