21.10.2021
Stabilizing US-Russian Relations: So Far So Good, but Dangers Lurk
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Thomas Graham

Distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Valdai Discussion Club

Everyone agrees that US-Russian relations are in a perilous state. No one believes a reset is possible; indeed, neither Moscow nor Washington wants one, so great are the contradictions between them. Both have settled for the less ambitious goal of stabilizing relations to halt, if not reverse, a dangerous downward spiral. That sounds good and responsible. But what does it mean?

Both sides have been reluctant to be explicit about the details—in part, one suspects, to preserve room for diplomatic maneuver, but also to avoid domestic complications that would arise from leaders’ appearing less than fully committed to achieving goals they had earlier touted. 

As always, actions are usually a better guide to policy than words. This is surely true of the Biden administration. Despite the at times tough rhetoric, and repeated vows to resist resolutely any Russian actions that might harm the United States or its allies, the Biden administration has taken a pragmatic approach, aimed at avoiding gratuitous escalation of tensions. To that end, President Joseph Biden waived sanctions against Nord Stream 2 last spring, even though earlier he had castigated it as a “bad deal” for European energy security. In a similar vein, the second round of sanctions the administration levied in August for the poisoning of Aleksey Navaly, as required by US law, was quite mild, far short of the extreme punitive measures the law allowed. Perhaps most tellingly, Biden handled the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a low-key fashion, offering him little encouragement in his positions on NATO, the Donbas, or Crimea. This posture stood in stark contrast to the high-profile role Biden had played as vice president in supporting Ukraine after the eruption of conflict with Russia in 2014. 

At the same time, the American president has evinced no particular desire to improve relations by resolving outstanding problems or removing sources of friction—with two notable exceptions, strategic stability and cybersecurity, areas of vital national security interest for the United States. Biden is determined to halt developments that risk a destabilizing arms race, unacceptable damage to America’s critical infrastructure, and, at the extreme, conflict that could escalate to nuclear war. At the June summit, he was quick to agree with President Putin to launch sustained dialogues on both matters to explore ways to reduce the attendant risks. 

This then has become the essence of “stabilization” of relations for Biden: preservation of the status quo on most issues, coupled with active work to rein in dangerous trends in nuclear and cyber competition.

Whether this is also President Vladimir Putin’s view of stabilization is an open question, but he too has avoided escalating tensions since the June summit. The Kremlin has toned down its anti-American rhetoric—even in the run-up to the Duma elections, in sharp contrast to past practice— although it could not forego gloating over the American debacle in Afghanistan. Similarly, the Kremlin has not overreacted to new American sanctions, not even hinting at serious retaliation. Perhaps most important, there appears to have been a lull in ransomware attacks against American infrastructure—which, Biden made plain at the summit, would provoke an relentless American response if they continued. 

Skeptics might argue that the Kremlin had little reason to push back at Biden’s approach to stabilization since it has consisted largely of American actions that alleviate pressure on Moscow. That is true, but those skeptics also would have predicted that Moscow would not have been able to resist the temptation to press its advantage if Biden took the steps he has in fact taken. So far at least Moscow has resisted. As a result, while still troubled, relations are in much better shape now, more stable, than they were when Biden took office back in January. That should pass for initial success in these difficult times. 

Whether this positive trend can be sustained remains to be seen. There are some signs that both sides want it to. Although the two countries have yet to restore normal diplomatic relations, and issues associated with diplomatic visas and properties continue to be an irritant, they have established regular channels of communication that should help keep relations on track, the most important of which links US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev. Moreover, a less fraught relationship would afford both Biden and Putin more time and resources to devote to the pressing domestic problems they face. Continued stabilization thus serves their purposes. 

But much could still go wrong. The US Congress, with its solid bipartisan anti-Russian consensus, could, for instance, tie the hands of Biden by mandating harsh sanctions that would almost certainly provoke a tough Russian response—as some members are trying to do with amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act now under consideration. The Democratic leadership will almost certainly scotch such efforts to avoid embarrassing “their” president, but unwelcome congressional intervention will remain a threat to improved relations. Another possibility is that an American or Russian ally—Ukraine and Belarus are the prime candidates—provokes a crisis along the long NATO-Russia frontier in Europe and puts a quick end to the current positive trend.

Washington does not control Kyiv, or Moscow Minsk, even if Moscow and Washington profess to believe otherwise—and neither Kyiv nor Minsk is above jeopardizing US-Russian ties for its own purposes.

The most ominous threat, however, might arise from the continuing intense rivalry in cyberspace, which could spin out of control, despite the ongoing cybersecurity dialogue. Ransomware attacks aside, the complexity and ambiguities of cyberspace, and the rapid advances in cyber tools and weaponry, make the temptation to seek unilateral advantage in the cyber realm almost irresistible. Discovery of a massive Russian penetration of any element of American critical infrastructure could create overwhelming pressure on the Biden administration to respond aggressively. And no doubt the same would be true for the Kremlin, even if an American intrusion into Russia’s critical infrastructure were not made public. Restraint in cyberspace is essential to the stabilization of relations—and perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve given the near-total absence of trust between Russia and the United States. Unfortunately, a sharp deterioration in relations is never more than a click or two away.

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