In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and later reported that he told Putin that he didn’t think Putin had a soul. Putin looked back, according to Biden, and responded, “We understand each other.” This dialogue is symbolic of the differences in perception between the two leaders, resulting in ongoing mutual misunderstandings. These profound differences, in turn, explain why many Russians have found themselves hoping at least that the situation will not deteriorate further during Biden’s presidency.
Such misunderstandings and the seemingly persistent inability to strike a bargain arise from the differences between Moscow and Washington in their approach to world affairs and the proper manner of handling them. While the Russians perceive the world as a dangerous place, manageable only through a transactional attitude, Washington aspires—at least in theory—to design its foreign policy according to moral values, such as democratic practices and the pursuit of human rights.
Russia perceives the US approach as both a burden and an opportunity. It’s a burden because such morally motivated US intervention may end up destabilizing nations and regions: This was the case when the Americans sought to oust Saddam Hussein of Iraq or bring about the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya (in the latter case, the Russians bitterly accused the Obama administration of tricking them into supporting the UN Security Council resolution that authorized their actions and have no intention of letting this happen again). In Moscow’s view, such poorly designed adventures broke a delicate balance and, in Saddam’s case, removed the main challenger to the ayatollah regime in Iran. Russia also perceives American foreign policy as an opportunity, because when Washington sets conditions for its involvement in foreign arenas and reduces its commitment to regimes accused of undemocratic behavior, Russia stands ready to seize the opportunity and fill the gap.
Such was the case when the US accused Egypt of human rights abuses and repression after the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a terrorist organization by Russia, was overthrown in a military coup d’état in 2013. As a consequence, the US administration, at least temporarily, suspended some of its aid to Egypt, while Russia moved right in and signed military contracts worth nearly $3.5 billion.
Russia consistently attempts to take advantage of every occasion in which the US is reluctant to become involved. Moscow understands quite well its inability to match US capabilities and directly challenge it. While openly crushing internal dissent, Russia uses mainly covert operations and intensive cyber warfare to gain influence, which is much more powerful insofar as conventional military measures are concerned. For the same reason, Russia constantly re-evaluates—as a result of its past experience with Washington—any possible US reaction to its behavior and whether the benefits outweigh potential costs.
The new American administration wishes to focus on internal issues, such as containing the COVID-19 pandemic and managing its economic implications, and advancing the huge infrastructure projects Biden has initiated, in addition to defending itself against China, which the administration has defined as the country’s main external threat. Russia, however, refuses to align with US priorities and accept US domination and challenges it on an ongoing basis, as long as it believes the cost is bearable.
This can be seen even in the first few months after the Biden administration had assumed office. In March, a US intelligence report revealed that Russia had meddled in the recent presidential elections by covertly promoting former President Donald Trump’s re-election. Biden, in an interview right after the election, called Putin a “killer,” and the US imposed additional sanctions on Russian entities. These sanctions were also a response to the widespread cyberattacks against US infrastructure and government institutions in December 2020, known as the SolarWinds hack. In addition, Russia was likely responsible for poisoning the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny before his arrest and responded harshly to Navalny’s supporters who called for his release and protested against the Russian regime.
Since then, Russia has persistently suppressed any opposition activity in Russia and has stationed (and withdrawn) special military forces near the Ukraine border as part of a familiar pattern of intimidation. In early June, the head of the German internal intelligence service noted that Russian espionage and subversion efforts had risen to a level similar to the days of the Cold War, and that Russia was once again seeking to increase its penetration of Germany and the West. He also said that in efforts to sow divisions in the West, Russia is acting more aggressively than before.
All these recent examples of Russian aggressive conduct indicate that Russia is either unaware of the growing pressure President Biden faces at home to punish the Kremlin for its policy choices or blatantly ignores it. This pressure comes mainly—but not only—from within the Democratic Party, as part of a push to advance human rights issues and renew transatlantic alliances, as Biden had promised during his election campaign. Meeting these promises will oblige President Biden to address issues such as the Russian threat to Ukraine and the interception of a passenger plane by Russia’s protégé, Belarus, to arrest a Belarusian opposition figure.
Moscow, however, is also very much aware of the fact that the American public is sick and tired of investing blood and treasure in overseas involvements that do not concern it directly. Moscow also takes into account that the US administration suffers from strategic fatigue and has no inclination to become involved in distant battlefields or explosive remote arenas such as Ukraine, which have hardly anything to do with the lives of everyday Americans. Therefore, any American step, such as providing additional military aid to Ukraine, would mean to the Russians that the US administration is interfering in issues that do not really concern it. The Americans’ overarching goal, as the Kremlin perceives it, is to eventually topple Putin and thus bring about a regime change.
There are signs that the US might restrain the prevailing anti-Russian sentiment in Washington in order to focus and promote issues that have higher priority for the administration’s grand strategy, namely the Chinese challenge. With this in mind, arms control is one issue that the two states have managed to agree on, with the agreement to extend New START, a bilateral treaty for the reduction of strategic weapons, signed in February. In the Middle East, mainly in Syria where Russian presence is the greatest, the US and Russia have been pursuing a contradictory policy for years. However, the US has recently indicated that it is negotiating with Russia about the continued operation of keeping the last humanitarian corridor to Syria still open. A tactical agreement—if reached—may serve as a potential basis for further, although limited, US–Russian understandings in the Syrian arena.
Perhaps more significant, as an indication that the US is willing to compromise some interests or principles in return for gains in other fields, are the latest developments regarding the Nord Stream 2 project, which bypasses Ukraine and delivers gas directly from Russia to Germany. In mid-May, the US indicated it would waive sanctions on the company building the pipeline. This came as a surprise to many because the US administration, even under former president Trump, had been pressuring Germany for years to abandon the project. Washington has claimed it would increase Europe’s dependency on Russia and further undermine Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian pressure, while Germany has insisted the project is merely economic in essence and has no political implications. Its latest policy turn shows the US prefers good relations with Germany rather than risk endangering the cooperation with a key NATO ally for what seems to be mainly a Ukrainian interest. For Russia, this signifies that Washington will occasionally pursue a world view that happens, at times, to be less sentimental.
These latest developments suggest that the US administration is able to cooperate with Russia in specific matters, based on shared interests. This means the US can both deter and punish Russia for its malign behavior, but it can also preserve channels for dialogue on some issues. The June meeting in Geneva between the two leaders demonstrated they are capable of direct dialogue, although limited in its outcomes (mainly an agreement to establish a bilateral-strategic interchange). Since both presidents arrived with modest expectations and a pragmatic approach, in contrast to the drama attached to Trump’s actions, the meeting is a positive sign for potential future cooperation, limited as it may be. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to reducing tensions over Syria, cyber, and other open issues.
If this is indeed the case, and the US would be willing to adopt a more pragmatic line and prioritize its goals (as in the case of its support for Ukraine) in return for greater, yet achievable objectives, then Russia’s wish—of preventing the relations from further deteriorating—would at least be partially fulfilled. As Putin said after his meeting with Biden, the US president indeed could prove to be someone with whom the Russians could do business. To the extent that the Geneva summit can serve as evidence, this complex pattern is well underway.