Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Russia, Stupid (For Now)

Biden wants to focus on China. That’s a gift to Putin.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
A screen shows Putin speaking.
A screen shows Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 4. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting this week in Geneva with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, almost all of Washington’s eyes remain firmly fixed on another rival. Last week, the U.S. Defense Department announced it completed reviewing U.S. national security strategy toward China. Although officials are vague on the review’s substance or how it will be implemented, that’s less important than what the review itself signals: the intent to infuse the Pentagon, and indeed the entire U.S. government, with the overarching goal of bracing for long-term strategic competition with China.

That’s been a constant refrain for Biden even before he took office, framing China’s rise as the United States’ central challenge of the century. Unless the United States regains its competitive and technological edge, Biden warned, China is “going to eat our lunch.”

Even in meetings in Europe last week with leaders from the G-7 and NATO, China stayed front and center on Biden’s mind. He tried, with some success, to rally both groupings to create a unified front against Beijing’s long-term challenge.

Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting this week in Geneva with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, almost all of Washington’s eyes remain firmly fixed on another rival. Last week, the U.S. Defense Department announced it completed reviewing U.S. national security strategy toward China. Although officials are vague on the review’s substance or how it will be implemented, that’s less important than what the review itself signals: the intent to infuse the Pentagon, and indeed the entire U.S. government, with the overarching goal of bracing for long-term strategic competition with China.

That’s been a constant refrain for Biden even before he took office, framing China’s rise as the United States’ central challenge of the century. Unless the United States regains its competitive and technological edge, Biden warned, China is “going to eat our lunch.”

Even in meetings in Europe last week with leaders from the G-7 and NATO, China stayed front and center on Biden’s mind. He tried, with some success, to rally both groupings to create a unified front against Beijing’s long-term challenge.

True, in sharp contrast to the obeisance former U.S. President Donald Trump showed Putin, Biden has called the Russian leader a killer and imposed some penalties on Moscow after the Kremlin’s latest cyber mischief. But despite Biden’s tough talk, some Russia watchers worry his narrow focus on great-power competition with China, coupled with a mixed message toward Moscow, suggests he is overdramatizing the threat by Beijing at the expense of Russia’ imminent threat to the United States and its allies.

Sometimes derided as a gas station with nuclear weapons, Russia is far from a washed-up power.

“I think Biden’s Russia policy looks a little naive right now. They seem to think they can put Russia in a little box and put a little bow on it, and Russia’s going to behave over the next four years, and we can just ignore it,” said Melinda Haring, a deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Russia is a much greater short-term threat. China is a greater long-term threat.”

Sometimes derided as a gas station with nuclear weapons, Russia is far from a washed-up power, even if it doesn’t pose nearly the same kind of economic challenge to the United States as China does.

Moscow has modernized its military forces—both with advanced weapons systems and nuclear capabilities—a lot more than NATO members have to date. Russia uses vast oil and gas exports and controls key pipelines in Europe to give it greater geopolitical heft—and the capability to cow vulnerable neighbors. Russia’s energy leverage is only getting bigger, with the completion of another pipeline carrying Russian gas across the Baltic states to Germany expected by September.

Putin continues to encourage destabilization and aggressively threaten U.S. interests from the Arctic to Europe to the Mediterranean Sea. He has annexed territory in Ukraine and continues his aggression toward Kiev, feinting with a massive buildup of forces near the border. He has intervened militarily to prop up a dictator in Syria and economically to prop up another in Belarus. At home, Putin is suspected of ordering the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny before jailing him, along with hundreds of other dissidents.

Through it all, the Kremlin has continued its interference in U.S. elections, most recently in 2020, as well as carrying out colossal cyberattacks against U.S. government agencies. Even criminal hackers in Russia pose a threat to U.S. corporate networks, as evidenced by recent ransomware attacks against a big U.S. pipeline and its biggest meatpacking factory.

In addition to his capacity to wreak havoc on the liberal international order, Putin also has an intent Chinese President Xi Jinping does not. Xi finds aspects of the world order that work for him but wants to revise the global system to give China a greater say. Putin simply wants to destroy it. Unlike Xi, who recognizes how the U.S. and Chinese economies are intertwined, Putin sees the United States’ demise as a win for Russia. Despite all the hawkish talk toward Beijing in Washington, opportunities for bilateral cooperation are still greater with Xi than with Putin, who sees weakening Biden at home and abroad as a way to minimize his own domestic political vulnerabilities.

For many U.S. allies, Russia’s threat seems a lot more immediate than the longer-term China challenge.

None of this is to dismiss China’s rising threat. Over the past decade, China has expanded its navy to become the largest in the world. It has exerted greater control over the South China Sea; imposed an air defense zone in the East China Sea; and ramped up military, diplomatic, and information warfare against Taiwan, a U.S. partner Beijing has long suggested it plans to take by force. China is engaged in a campaign of intellectual property theft against the United States, using cyberattacks to steal both military and industrial secrets. Beijing has also deployed economic coercion and so-called debt trap diplomacy to expand its reach, undermine global competition, and acquire critical infrastructure—economically heavy-handed behavior the G-7 recognized this weekend at the leaders’ summit in Cornwall, England.

But for many U.S. allies, Russia’s threat seems a lot more immediate than the longer-term China challenge. Putin is actively moving to expand his sphere of influence in Europe’s backyard. He has continued his aggression against Ukraine, with more than 100,000 troops and an array of hardware still amassed not far from the border. Later this year, Russia and Belarus are scheduled to conduct a joint exercise simulating war with NATO countries. In his State of the Nation speech in April, Putin ominously warned Western leaders against crossing “red lines” in Russian security and promised an “asymmetric” response. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently declared the relationship between NATO and Russia “at a low point, the lowest point since the end of the Cold War.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration pushed NATO allies to pivot toward China, and the alliance agreed to mention the need to counter China in its Strategic Concept document. In a communique to be published after the summit ends, NATO leaders will say “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security.”

But Washington’s effort to expand NATO’s mission, even as its members are already struggling to meet their own commitments to deter Russia, could prove to be an open invitation for Putin to continue sowing disarray.

Arriving at the NATO summit in Brussels, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said although the alliance must come to terms with Beijing’s rising influence as a “gigantic fact in our lives and a strategic consideration,” NATO leaders don’t view China as an adversary in the same way they view Russia.

“I don’t think anybody around the table today wants to descend into a new Cold War with China,” Johnson said.

So far, the Biden administration has seemed content to pursue a reset, in all but name, with Russia. Biden has imposed what he called in a recent Washington Post essay “meaningful consequences for behaviors that violate U.S. sovereignty,” including 2020 election interference and the SolarWinds cyberattack as well as Russia’s annexation, occupation of Crimea, and human rights abuses. Among them were a raft of diplomatic expulsions and new sanctions against Russian oligarchs and others working on Putin’s behalf.

At the same time, Biden also waived sanctions on the company building the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany and lifted sanctions on a Putin crony who leads the firm behind the project. Critics called the pipeline a major geopolitical prize for the Kremlin.

Biden invited Putin to this week’s summit in an effort to establish a more “stable and predictable” relationship between Washington and Moscow, something Putin said he also would like to see. But since the meeting was set, Putin has seemed bent on further destabilization. Hackers connected to Russia attacked critical U.S. infrastructure twice while a Russian court designated Navalny’s political movement as an extremist network. Meanwhile, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is totally dependent on Russian support, felt emboldened enough last month to hijack a passenger jet to arrest a prominent dissident.

The United States “cannot freeze U.S.-Russia relations in place to focus on the greater challenge of China.” 

Biden said he is prepared to deliver a tough message that all of this behavior is unacceptable and lay out the red lines if it continues, but it’s hard to see the meeting stopping Putin’s aggression without following up the summit with new policy to match.

Even after the summit is over, warned former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, the United States “cannot freeze U.S.-Russia relations in place to focus on the greater challenge of China. As Putin recently proved by amassing Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border or unleashing more cyberattacks, he’s not going to allow that.”

Expectations for the Geneva summit are low. The best-case scenario might be for Biden and Putin to establish some mutually acceptable rules of the game to avoid a direct confrontation that could rapidly escalate. A candid exchange of views that doesn’t paper over differences, something both leaders have promised, could be the starting point for such an agreement. Establishing a security dialogue on core issues like nuclear, cyber, and space as well as cooperation on other transnational threats like climate change and digital currencies would be seen as a success—and something experts and diplomats on both sides feel is achievable.

But that doesn’t mean the United States should have unrealistic expectations of what Putin is really playing at—and if Biden thinks he can recalibrate the relationship with Russia after one meeting in Geneva, he is sure to be disappointed.

Unless the United States makes serious efforts to tackle the Russian threat right in front of it, it will be in no shape to go the distance in a much longer-term showdown with Beijing. If Biden underestimates both Russia’s latent strength and Putin’s unshakeable determination to challenge the United States and its allies, China won’t have any U.S. lunch to eat.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.