What Biden and Putin Can Agree On

Both sides should take the long view if they are ever to reconcile.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on the phone in his office in St. Petersburg on Dec. 15, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on the phone in his office in St. Petersburg on Dec. 15, 2018. Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

The United States and Russia seem so bitterly divided by their conflicting visions of world order, geopolitical interests, and values that many say there can be no question of a new partnership or reset. The best all sides can hope for, in that case, is unrelenting enmity with efforts to avoid a civilization-ending nuclear war or inadvertent escalation to military conflict.

That seems to be the kind of cooperation U.S. President Joe Biden was going for in his first call with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which focused on extending the New START treaty before moving on to the list of Russia’s malign actions—the detention (now imprisonment) of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the mass arrest of protesters, cyberbreaches, election meddling, and so on.But U.S.-Russian relations are worthy of another attempt at a deeper relationship—one that breaks the cycle of offense and revenge that has characterized U.S.-Russian relations over the past three decades since the exhilarating days when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War ended. To do that, there are some clear policy steps that both sides might take to realize their shared interests.

First, analysts often focus on “Putinism” and the corruption and aggression it entails. Biden, for his part, has stated that the United States will no longer be “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions.” There is no question that Russia’s aggressive actions have done harm to the United States and beyond. From a conflict resolution perspective, however, it is important to understand that Putin did not appear out of nowhere. His strategies have a starting point in the betrayal that many Russians felt when NATO expanded eastward after assurances that it would not. And then there was the further alienation engendered by the U.S. bombing of Russian ally Serbia in 1999, decisions to build Aegis Ashore missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, support for an anti-Russian leader in Georgia after 2003, and support for the pro-Western opposition in Ukraine in 2004 and then in 2013-2014. Then there was the U.S. decision to go beyond the United Nations mandate and topple Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011, and of course U.S. support for opposition figures in Russia.

It is helpful to understand that it is not only Putin, but also his predecessors, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, who felt aggrieved by U.S. actions. In former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s memoir, he recalls a conversation when then-President Bill Clinton put himself in Yeltsin’s shoes: “We keep telling Ol’ Boris, ‘Okay, now here’s what you’ve got to do next—here’s some more shit for your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him, given what he’s up against and who he’s dealing with.” And by the middle of his presidency, even initially pro-Western Yeltsin would express his brewing resentment, “I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority … Russia will rise again!” he said, “I repeat: Russia will rise again!”

From that perspective, it is no mystery why pliant Yeltsin picked steely Putin to “lift Russia off its knees.” (And it wasn’t just Putin’s promise not to go after Yeltsin, his family, or cronies for corruption.) Looking pained, Gorbachev told me two years ago that, after he let the Berlin Wall come down and worked to put an end to the Cold War, the United States kept trying to “push Russia out of geopolitics.”

So the problems in U.S.-Russian relations are not just “Putinism” or the idea that Putin fears democracy and needs an external enemy to stay in power. Rather, the problems existed before and will continue long after.

Second, to begin a reconciliation process, negotiators must see the whole picture, the whole action-reaction conflict system. The view that Russia was dangerous and had to be contained while it was weak became in large part a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, Putin’s vindictive reactions played its critical role in this play, and it has served the regime’s purposes of hunkering down and portraying an external threat to the population. But it can serve U.S. interests to press pause on the attack button and examine where it might reconsider its own assumptions. To use what I think is a brilliant folk metaphor from a Russian proverb, “We all see from our own church tower.” This centuries-old proverb conveys very well the self-serving “myside bias” of what we call “strategic narcissism.”

More productive will be looking at the world with “strategic empathy.” In the field of negotiation and mediation, scholars have for decades studied how and why humans fall into reaction and conflict, and how we can step back and see what creative options might elude us in the heat of battle. For the Biden administration in the immediate term, one option may well be a speech like

President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 “Strategy of Peace” commencement address at American University. Kennedy took a strong stand in defense of democratic values, firmly rejected communism, and called for empathy and introspection. It was not just high rhetoric—it broke the eight-year deadlock in U.S.-Soviet negotiations on nuclear testing and led two months later to the landmark Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Today, Biden could not only denounce authoritarianism in Russia and repeat that the United States will not be rolling over in the face of Russian aggression, but also acknowledge, as Kennedy did, that both sides contributed to the tragic action-reaction cycle of conflict in the two countries’ relationship. The Biden administration might further look for opportunities for cooperation on the pandemic, climate change, space, cyberdiplomacy, Arctic transit, and beyond.

It was after the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis that Kennedy gave his 1963 speech. His closing words: “And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

When leaders personally recognize what is at stake, agreements get done. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, greatly influenced by the ABC film The Day After, recognized the nuclear danger. He and Gorbachev signed the greatest arms reductions agreements in history. Surely, Biden and Putin today recognize that U.S.-Russian animosity is good for neither Russians nor Americans. Both must rise above their own church tower to find the place where we all can meet.

Bruce Allyn is the director of the Russia Negotiation Initiative at the Harvard Negotiation Project and the senior creative producer of “U.S.-Russia Relations: Quest for Stability.”