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US-Russian Relations and the War in Ukraine

  • Geopolitics
  • 2 Months ago
  • 6 min read
US-Russian Relations and the War in Ukraine|Thomas Graham - Distinguished Fellow,  Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)

Left to Right: Former US President Donald Trump, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin | Newsweek

Thomas Graham
Thomas Graham - Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York

The one thing the Biden Administration will not do, however, is talk to Russia. It does not trust Putin to engage in good faith. It sees little evidence that he is inclined to bring the conflict to an end through a negotiated settlement. And yet, it also understands that at some point it will have to talk to Russia—not only to resolve the Ukraine conflict but also to deal with the broader question of European security.

US-Russia State of Play

The United States and Russia are adversaries once again. Mutual animosity has plumbed depths not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War, as the war in Ukraine poisons all aspects of relations. Sustained, substantive bilateral dialogue lies in the distant past. The two presidents have not spoken since before Russia’s invasion, and the foreign ministers have had just one cursory face-to-face meeting on the margins of an international conference.

Even strategic stability talks, which earlier were insulated from downturns in relations, have ended. As a result, the new START treaty, the last remaining bilateral nuclear-arms control agreement, will expire in February 2026 almost certainly without a follow-on agreement in place.

Neither side appears inclined to put relations on a more constructive track. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, deteriorating relations have an upside. He postures now as the leader of a global anti-West crusade, determined to erode American hegemony in favour of an allegedly more just and democratic world order. He claims to be protecting Russia from the corrosive influence of a decadent West. Standing up to the United States, and the West in general, lies at the core of his political appeal at home and abroad, at least in the Global South.

The situation in Washington is more complex. President Joseph Biden took office in January 2021 assuming some tension with Moscow was inevitable. He had no intention of seeking a reset, in part because he did not consider Russia to be a foreign-policy priority. Rather, his goal was to stabilise relations, to prevent a sharp deterioration, so that he could focus his energies on managing relations with China, America’s only strategic competitor in his eyes. The contrast in the language his administration has used in describing Russia and China is stark and revealing. The latter “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective,” as in the words of the Biden Administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy.  Meanwhile, the Strategy notes, Russia, without the wherewithal to remake the world order, only “poses an immediate and persistent threat to international peace and stability.”

Putin’s actions, however, compelled the Biden administration to accord Russia a much higher priority. His buildup of troops along Ukraine’s borders led Biden to call for an early summit in June 2021 to ease tensions and put relations on a more constructive track. Agreed talks on strategic stability and cyber security made some limited progress, but evidently not enough to satisfy Putin. That fall, he began to ramp up military forces near Ukraine, and Washington began to warn its allies and partners, including Ukraine, of an impending invasion. A brief, intense diplomatic effort failed to defuse the crisis, because, Washington is convinced, Putin was not interested in finding a peaceful resolution: He was dead set on invading Ukraine and anchoring it in Russia’s orbit.

The war had a dramatic impact on Washington’s assessment of Russia and future relations. For all practical purposes, for at least as long as Putin is in power, it has abandoned hope of finding “stability and predictability” in relations or areas of constructive work, which a senior administration official early on had identified as the goals with Russia.

No Detente with Russia

On the two issues that have dominated relations for decades, strategic stability and European security, Washington sees little scope for positive engagement with Russia. The National Security Strategy suggests that the administration is prepared to pursue strategic stability without Russia and that European security will have to be designed as protection against Russia, and not as the cooperative effort it had been since the late Soviet period. As I have written elsewhere, “never since the end of the Cold War has the United States held out so little hope for relations with Russia and so thoroughly rejected it as a possible, albeit limited, partner.”

Instead, Washington worked closely with its allies and partners in Europe and East Asia to develop and implement policies to isolate Russia diplomatically and cripple it economically. Diplomatic ties were cut back to the bare minimum. Western firms were urged to exit Russia—and hundreds did, if not out of moral outrage, then out of concern for the reputational risks that would arise in more lucrative markets from association with the Russian aggressor. The United States and Europe coordinated the rollout of an accumulating series of sanctions aimed at starving Russia’s war-making potential. Russian assets, including its foreign reserves held in Western banks, were frozen. A price cap was eventually placed on exported Russian oil, in an effort to reduce the revenue Moscow received from this critical export without precipitating a sharp reduction in the level of exports and thereby destabilising global oil markets.

American and Russian Adaptation

As the war enters its third year, it is clear that Washington’s policies have fallen far short of expectations. It might have engineered large scale condemnations of Russian aggression in the UN General Assembly (garnering the vote of more than 140 of the UN’s 193 member states) and led a successful effort to strip Russia of its seat on the UN Human Rights Council. But the major countries of the Global South—Brazil, India, and South Africa—have maintained close relations, as has China and NATO member Turkey. In 2024, five countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—joined the BRICS, which Russia took the lead in establishing in the 2000s.

Moscow has also found creative ways to evade sanctions, including building a “shadow fleet” to evade the price cap on oil exports and reengineering supply chains for critical technologies. It has put the economy on a war footing. As a result, the economy did not crater by double digits in 2022, as many had predicted; it fell only by a little more than 2 percent. It then grew by 3.5 percent in 2023, and the International Monetary Fund is estimating growth of 2.6 percent in 2024. Meanwhile, Chinese and Turkish businesses, among others, have moved in to fill the consumer niches abandoned by Western firms.

Against the background of the failed Ukrainian counteroffensive last fall, mounting Ukraine fatigue in key Western countries, including the United States, and Russian resilience, Washington is now reassessing its strategy toward Russia and the war. Some pundits argue that it should double-down on the original strategy, pressuring countries to attenuate ties with Moscow and ratcheting up sanctions while cracking down on evasion. Why that would produce better results is not clear. What is clear is that it runs a great risk of alienating countries of the Global South, which do not want to be forced to choose between Russia and the West. Other pundits advise the administration to abandon Ukraine’s goal of liberating all the territory seized by Russia to focus on defending the current line of contact and rebuilding the economy of the territory Kyiv does control in partnership with Western allies. The hope is that a stout defence will eventually convince Putin of the futility of further military operations and bring him to the negotiating table. The administration’s approach will likely be between these two extremes, borrowing elements from each one.

Election Year

The one thing the Biden Administration will not do, however, is talk to Russia. It does not trust Putin to engage in good faith. It sees little evidence that he is inclined to bring the conflict to an end through a negotiated settlement. And yet, it also understands that at some point it will have to talk to Russia—not only to resolve the Ukraine conflict but also to deal with the broader question of European security.

In the end, Russia and the United States are the only two countries that can reshape the balance of power in Europe. In this light, the administration’s primary goal in the months ahead, with regard to the war in Ukraine, should be creating the conditions in which talks can commence.

Would Donald Trump’s victory in this November’s presidential election change this assessment in a fundamental way? There is a widespread belief that Trump as president would abandon Ukraine, handing Putin a major victory. But that is far from certain. Trump has said little about Ukraine or Russia in the past year, other than to boast that he would resolve the Ukraine conflict in 24 hours, without giving a plausible explanation of how. That provides little guidance as to how he would act if he occupied the White House. What we do know is that for all his fawning over Putin, his administration’s Russia policy was actually tougher than his predecessor’s. He sent Ukraine the lethal aid President Barack Obama refused to provide to avoid gratuitously provoking Putin. Trump expanded sanctions against Russia, expelled its diplomats, and shuttered its diplomatic missions. Against this background, the best bet at the moment is that Trump would not depart radically from the Russia policy he inherited from Biden. And that means no improvement in relations is on the horizon.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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