Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
President Joe Biden has articulated the contours of a pragmatic policy toward Russia: engage where possible, but don’t check American values at the door. Then, contain, deter, and punish President Vladimir Putin when necessary. Unlike President Donald Trump, who spent four years praising and courting Putin, Biden has cast his Russia policy as part of a broader global contest between democracy and dictatorship, pledging democratic renewal at home and multilateral cooperation abroad.
This is a great start. But the first real test of Biden’s ability to translate policy aspirations into action comes this week in Geneva, where the president will meet with Putin. Biden requested the meeting in part to explore possible areas of cooperation with Putin and in part to dissuade him from pursuing disruptive actions abroad—be they hacking U.S. servers or meddling in the affairs of Russia’s neighbors. Biden might make progress on the former objective, but he is unlikely to succeed on the latter. He must therefore follow up his limited efforts at engagement with a firm and vigilant containment policy—regardless of what happens in Geneva.
Although U.S.-Russian relations have lately been in a downward spiral, there is still room for cooperation. One area that should be at the top of the agenda in Geneva is arms control. Biden and Putin already agreed in February to extend the New START treaty, beginning a five-year countdown to reach a replacement deal that will be much harder to achieve, since the United States wants new limitations on nonstrategic nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, and Russia wants constraints on missile defense. Biden and Putin should also consider launching parallel discussions on new “rules of the road” for cyberweapons and space weapons.
Improving lines of communication between Moscow and Washington is another potential win-win issue. Russia’s ambassador to the United States currently works from Moscow, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia works from Washington. As a result, most diplomatic exchanges happen through battling press statements, not closed-door meetings. To reduce the risk that miscommunication or misperception leads to conflict, Biden and Putin should reestablish high-level communications between their governments, via either a channel between the White House and the Kremlin or between the State Department and Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Military-to-military talks and even meetings between intelligence officials could complement this more political channel. And at the level of ordinary citizens, ease of travel could be improved through the normalization of diplomatic representation in both countries. Less likely to succeed but still worth exploring in Geneva would be a smaller agenda of cooperation on multilateral issues, such as preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and keeping humanitarian assistance flowing to Syrians.
But even progress in these limited areas will not translate into a stable or predictable relationship. Nor should the United States seek to fully normalize relations with a regime that occupies Georgian and Ukrainian territory; carries out cyberattacks against U.S. government and private-sector networks; wrongly imprisons American citizens; props up dictators in Belarus, Syria, and Venezuela; and arrests and suppresses its domestic opposition. Biden has offered the possibility of a more cooperative relationship with Russia knowing full well that Putin is unlikely to choose that path. Putin benefits politically from having the United States as an enemy, and he provokes Washington and its allies in an effort to bolster Russia’s image as a great power. Whether or not Putin seems open to limited cooperation, therefore, the Biden administration must seek to contain the Kremlin while also directly engaging Russian society.
Any plan for containing Russia must start with a strategy for deterring Putin’s belligerent behavior. NATO remains the most important multilateral forum for doing so, and Biden’s appearance at the alliance’s summit in Brussels this week marked a major improvement from the Trump era. But simply showing up is not enough. As he started to do in Brussels this week, Biden must also coax individual members to spend more on defense and on in-kind support for the alliance’s shared capabilities—especially transportation, cyberdefenses, and intelligence sharing. Biden also needs to convince NATO to bolster its naval power in European seas, expand its presence on the alliance’s eastern and southeastern edges, and assist Georgia and Ukraine with their defensive capabilities. Yesterday’s NATO communique, issued by the heads of state and government who participated in the meeting, was a welcome improvement over the Trump years, but it was still aspirational, not operational.
Putin has modernized conventional forces on NATO’s borders; NATO must do so as well. Biden and his counterparts have promised to task NATO’s leadership with rewriting the alliance’s decade-old Strategic Concept—the alliance’s road map for collective defense—to account for China’s rise, cyberthreats, and Russia’s resurgence. But they must be careful to not distract from NATO’s core mission; Russia, not China, remains the main security threat to NATO’s European members.
Outside NATO, the Biden administration’s efforts to deter Russia should be aligned more tightly with its efforts to contend with China. Biden rightly sees the need for democratic and economic renewal at home in order to compete with China abroad. The same is needed to deter Russia. Both Beijing and Moscow promote a narrative of American decline. Strengthening American democracy, including by protecting voting rights, is the best way to counter it.
Although U.S.-Russian relations have lately been in a downward spiral, there is still room for cooperation.
Restoring U.S. participation in multilateral institutions would also advance Washington’s interests vis-à-vis China and Russia. Biden should work with other democratic governments to reduce the influence that the two countries wield in international institutions, especially regarding norms of Internet freedom, air travel, police cooperation, and trade and investment. Engaging robustly in these multilateral forums, rather than ignoring or quitting them as Trump did, is the best way to prevent autocratic members from eroding them from within.
But even a more internationally isolated Russia will still pose a cyberthreat to the United States and other democracies. Biden must therefore move beyond tit-for-tat reactions and develop a comprehensive strategy for deterring cyberattacks, disinformation, and other influence campaigns. To raise the cost of future cyberattacks, the Biden administration should work together with allies to identify and indict cybercriminals (so their names can be put on Interpol Red Notice lists, empowering third countries to detain them) and to criminalize ransom payments. It should also make good on Biden’s pledge to tackle international corruption and kleptocracy: greater transparency around Russian financial transactions in the West would reduce Russian influence in democratic societies and expose the Kremlin’s hypocritical behavior.
By framing his Russia policy as part of a broader ideological contest between democracy and dictatorship, Biden has effectively communicated what his agenda is against: malign autocratic behavior, corruption, and cyberhacking. But his administration also needs to articulate what his agenda is for—in Russia, in Europe, and in the rest of the world.
Strengthening democracy and economic development should be the clear answer. In Ukraine, arguably the most important frontline state in the global struggle between democracy and dictatorship, that will mean strengthening Ukrainian sovereignty, security, and democracy in the face of persistent Russian occupation and aggression. Biden could offer to participate directly in the so-called Normandy process—alongside Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany—which is tasked with ending the war in eastern Ukraine. Alternatively, he could propose a new format, free from the flawed Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, which have so far failed to halt the fighting or restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Biden should also reaffirm U.S. support for Ukrainian reunification, including Crimea, however unlikely that is in the near term.
Even more important, Biden should pursue a parallel initiative that does not require Russian cooperation: strengthening democracy, development, and the rule of law in the free part of Ukraine, so that those living in occupied regions might eventually rise up and demand unification, just as East Germans did in 1989. Biden should work with European partners to form a commission of experts to press for and assist with market, democratic, judicial, state administration, and military reforms. The commission should focus, in particular, on reducing corruption and increasing transparency so as to limit the political influence of oligarchs and Russian proxies. Biden could also appoint a new ambassador with special expertise on democracy and development or a special envoy to Ukraine with a mandate to support democratic development in the region. Additional military assistance should also be part of the equation, especially mobile radars and navy assets.
Any plan for containing Russia must start with a strategy for deterring Putin’s belligerent behavior.
Biden’s election sparked new hope among those who support democracy not only in Ukraine but also elsewhere in the region, including in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Russia itself. Biden needs to support these newly inspired democrats. Putin is already helping their opponents in Europe and beyond. He has sought close ties with Viktor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, and Trump and the alt-right in the United States. Putin lavishes propaganda outlets, such as RT and Sputnik radio, with generous budgets. He provides financial assistance to dictators in Belarus and Venezuela. And he has intervened militarily in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.
Biden must provide a counterweight to Putin’s promotion of autocracy. He should continue to speak publicly in support of all those fighting for democracy across the region, from Alexei Navalny in Russia to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus to the hundreds of lesser-known political prisoners in both countries. His administration should also make it easier for students from Russia and elsewhere in the region to study in the United States; for high-skilled workers to immigrate to the United States; and for political leaders to seek asylum, if necessary.
More broadly, Biden should use his planned democracy summit to launch a new international institution to support democratic leaders and ideas around the world. In 1982, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, which has provided assistance to trade unions, political parties, business associations, civil society organizations, and media outlets across the globe. Taking that idea and updating it for the digital age, Biden could found a new platform for connecting nongovernmental organizations, youth groups, trade unions, political movements, and independent media in new democracies or autocracies and linking them with peer organizations, trainers, specialists, and financial supporters around the word. Such a civil society marketplace—call it the International Platform for Freedom—could offer online training programs, a multilingual library of seminal works on democracy and the rule of law, cloud storage space, cybersecurity resources, encrypted communications, legal services, and a decentralized mechanism for crowdsourced fundraising.
Lastly, Biden should restructure U.S. government media to better counter Russian propaganda. He should dismantle the current centralized bureaucracy for all U.S. government media, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and transform its reporting-focused entities—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks—into autonomous news organizations funded by Congress. The USAGM became dangerously politicized during the Trump era, underscoring the necessity of a stronger firewall between the U.S. government and the independent reporting it funds. Voice of America in Latin America and Africa should also become freestanding independent organizations, and they should stop trying to perform the dual mandate of journalism and promotion of the United States. The rest of VOA and the State Department’s public diplomacy offices should be incorporated into a new government agency similar in structure and authority to the U.S. Agency for International Development but with a mission to explain American policies, culture, and values and to coordinate the U.S. government’s strategies to combat its adversaries’ psychological warfare. Like the USAID administrator, the head of this new agency should report to the secretary of state but retain operational autonomy.
Biden is right to test whether Putin might embrace a more stable, predictable relationship with the United States. Should the Russian president opt instead to continue invading countries, mounting hacking and disinformation campaigns, and arresting innocent Russians and Americans, it will be clear that he, not Biden, is responsible for confrontation with the United States. Biden is also right to try to work with the Kremlin on a limited agenda of mutual interest, particularly on arms control. Even during tense moments of the Cold War, U.S. presidents saw the wisdom in cooperating with their Soviet counterparts to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
At the same time, the Biden administration must swiftly develop the other dimensions of its strategy for containing and deterring Putin’s belligerent behavior while also supporting democratic forces in Russia, Europe, and around the world. After Geneva, in other words, the hard work begins.