US and Russia Engage Again
Amb P S Raghavan, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The publicly-stated “outcomes” from the US-Russia summit meeting in Geneva on June 16 are well-known: return of their Ambassadors to their respective stations; foreign office discussions on restoration of diplomatic properties and staff strengths in their diplomatic and consular missions; talks on exchange of prisoners; launch of “strategic stability” talks (for arms control); establishing a mechanism for preventing cyber/ransomware attacks from the territory of either country; and consultations on cooperation in the Arctic.

In his post-Summit press conference, President Biden – goaded by searching questions from a sceptical press corps – gave a remarkably frank account of the conversation, as also the strategic thinking behind his initiative for the meeting.

Biden summed up US global strategy with one rhetorical question: “How do we sustain us being the leading, the most powerful and most democratic country in the world?” This encapsulates the thrust of American post-Cold War foreign policy, regardless of the political persuasion of the Administration. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent emergence of a unipolar world, American strategy – and it has made no bones about it – has been to influence the world order in such a way as to prevent any future challenge to its global dominance. The rhetorical question was a frank confirmation at the highest level that this objective will continue to drive US foreign policy and that it will use every available multilateral and bilateral leverage to further it.

The post-Cold War churn presents challenges to US dominance. Russia continues to strive for restoration and recognition of its great power status. Globalization and technology have strengthened the aspirations of many rising powers, to expand their political and economic influence in the emerging order. And, most of all, the meteoric rise of China has put it on the path to reaching parity with the US in the foreseeable future, constraining the political space of other aspiring great powers.

President Biden touched on all these points. He recognized (and did not counter) Russia’s perception of being “encircled” by the US and its allies. This perception has been developing ever since Russia, under President Putin, sought to break free from a Western embrace and to regain global influence by replenishing its military strength and developing an independent network of political and economic partnerships. Russia saw the expansion of NATO to its borders (reneging on verbal assurances to then-President Gorbachev), and Western actions to constrain Russian influence in its near and extended neighbourhood, as encirclement for containment. Russian reactions (sometimes overreactions) to perceived threats and Western counterreactions (sometimes disproportionate) have spawned Russia-US confrontations across geographies. Both have transgressed international laws– in the “annexation” or “reunification” of Crimea; unilateral sanctions (including secondary sanctions, pressurizing third countries); deployment of troops or mercenaries in third countries; and promoting regime change by less than democratic tactics.

President Biden said he wanted to meet President Putin to see whether they could agree on broad “rules of the road”. He came away with the impression that it was possible because, though President Putin felt the West was “looking to take him down”, his bigger problem was that Russia was being “squeezed” by the rising power of China. A Cold War with the US would thwart his ambition of reviving Russia’s economy and its status as a great power. Self-interest should, therefore, nudge Russia to seek a modus vivendi with the US. There is geopolitical logic in this argument, but it was received with scepticism, because it contradicts the widespread depiction of President Putin in the US as a malevolent and reckless wrecker of the world order.

The sense from President Biden’s comments and other briefings was that the US may have embraced the geopolitical wisdom that it should not strengthen the hands of its principal strategic competitor, China, by driving Russia into an alliance with it. President Biden said that every leader he met on his European tour – from the G7, NATO and the European Union – had supported his meeting with President Putin. On the other hand, US NSA Jake Sullivan highlighted the convergence President Biden had forged with the world’s democracies on China: getting NATO to recognize the security challenge posed by it, and agreement by G7 and EU countries to coordinate efforts to counter and push back China’s “non-market economic practices”.

It is premature to see this as a firm course: a number of known and unknown unknowns are strewn on its path. Hostility to Russia (and to President Putin) runs deep in the American political community, across party lines. Many key Biden Administration appointees have been associated with such attitudes. The economic connections of major US corporate entities with China run equally deep. Tensions with Russia have spawned conflicts (or fear of them) that have sustained lucrative US sales of sophisticated weaponry to Europe and Asia.

A US-Russia thaw would impact differently on the strategic, security and economic interests of various US allies in Europe. Notwithstanding President Biden’s claim that all of them welcomed his meeting with President Putin, some would be wary about the future course of this dialogue. This was demonstrated by the recent news that the EU did not approve a Franco-German proposal for an EU-Russia summit.

In Russia too, the course will not necessarily be smooth. The expectation of Russian “good behaviour” is based on the assumption that every “malign” act from, or by, Russia is inspired by the Kremlin. Those familiar with the dynamics of political, official and corporate life in Russia (or even with its social media) know that is not true. Some in Russia benefit from a US-Russia confrontation – including, but not only, opposition groups and cyber criminals.

The process could, therefore, be derailed by rogue elements, economic interests or political entities – in Russia or the West.

Even if it stays on course, the US-Russia rapprochement has limits. The long-term US strategic goals will not change. The threat perceptions of the Baltic countries, the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia and the strategic goals of Central European NATO countries will restrain US “concessions” to Russia. Therefore, unless some of these boundary conditions change, the best-case scenario for the bilateral engagement is one of “managed confrontation”, with guardrails to ensure it does not careen out of control.

From India’s perspective, a US-Russia thaw would be good news. An arms control dialogue, including all strategic weapons – nuclear and conventional, offensive and defensive – is welcome, also because it may eventually have to take China’s offensive weapons capability into account. If cybersecurity consultations result in a template for deterring, detecting and punishing transnational cybercrime, it can encourage other bilateral arrangements and catalyse creation of a regime for international cybersecurity cooperation.

A thaw (even if limited) could reduce US pressure on India-Russia relations. Prior to the Geneva summit, the US waived sanctions on the Russia-Germany gas pipeline project, Nord Stream 2. India could press for similar US sensitivity to India’s security interests, in the context of our arms imports from Russia. India’s strategic challenges in the Eurasian region, further complicated by the precipitous US & NATO exit from Afghanistan, dictate our intensive engagement with the region – cooperating with Russia and preventing a Russia-China condominium there. Connectivity is critical for this, underlining the importance of the multi-modal North-South transport corridor, connecting India, through Iran, to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. The Biden Administration should recognize that these objectives are compatible with the larger US strategic interests that President Biden spelt out in Geneva.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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