Argument

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

What Putin Wants From His Summit With Biden

With expectations low in Moscow, the Kremlin is looking for limited deescalation.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with NBC anchor Megyn Kelly at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 1, 2018. U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware on Jan. 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with NBC anchor Megyn Kelly at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 1, 2018. U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware on Jan. 15. ANGELA WEISS, ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

As Wednesday’s first summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin approaches, Moscow—like Washington—is in no rush to project optimism about any potential breakthrough between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set the tone last week: “We are not setting our expectations high, nor do we entertain any illusions about potential ‘breakthroughs.’ But there is an objective need for an exchange of views at the highest level on what threats Russia and the United States, as the two largest nuclear powers, see in the international arena.”

The Kremlin is, of course, pleased about the summit, especially since the initiative came from the U.S. side. Putin is the first leader of a major adversarial power with whom Biden is meeting since his inauguration. This plays to the Russian leadership’s ego, and to the Kremlin’s narrative at home that under Putin’s leadership, Russia is once again a great power at eye level with the United States.

As Wednesday’s first summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin approaches, Moscow—like Washington—is in no rush to project optimism about any potential breakthrough between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set the tone last week: “We are not setting our expectations high, nor do we entertain any illusions about potential ‘breakthroughs.’ But there is an objective need for an exchange of views at the highest level on what threats Russia and the United States, as the two largest nuclear powers, see in the international arena.”

The Kremlin is, of course, pleased about the summit, especially since the initiative came from the U.S. side. Putin is the first leader of a major adversarial power with whom Biden is meeting since his inauguration. This plays to the Russian leadership’s ego, and to the Kremlin’s narrative at home that under Putin’s leadership, Russia is once again a great power at eye level with the United States.

Nevertheless, the Russian leadership is clear-eyed about Washington’s motives for holding the summit now. The Biden team needs to stop the confrontation with Russia from distracting the White House from far more urgent and important priorities—including ending the pandemic, ensuring economic recovery, healing deep divisions within U.S. society, addressing climate change, and dealing with the rise of China. Even if the fault lines between Moscow and the West can’t be bridged right now, the focus should at least be on risk management.

The good news is that the Kremlin may be interested in a degree of deescalation too, mainly due to the start of political transition within the Russian system. After securing changes to the constitution, Putin now has the legal backing to run for two more six-year presidential terms. With the next election due in 2024, he is likely to stay in power until at least the end of this decade. However, winning elections by popular consent is becoming harder, as social discontent in Russia continues to grow and the long-term future of the country’s economic model—heavily based on the extraction of oil, gas, and other resources—is increasingly thrown into question by the ongoing green revolution. Also, Putin will likely make significant changes to the ruling team by 2024. The whole system could thus get more vulnerable to shocks, including new rounds of U.S. sanctions or U.S.-supported revelations about the ill-gotten wealth of senior Russian leaders. The Kremlin undoubtedly has the financial means and toolkit of state repression to weather parliamentary elections this September and the 2024 presidential elections. But if risks of a more damaging confrontation with Washington can be avoided, Moscow would certainly be willing to explore this opportunity with Biden.

Competition between the United States and Russia could become more predictable and manageable—while avoiding abrupt and dangerous escalation.

There seems to be a significant convergence of views between policymakers in Moscow and Washington on where limited progress can be made—in addition to ongoing dialogue and cooperation on issues such as Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan. First, Russia is eager to engage in talks with the new administration about strategic stability and arms control; the extension of the New START Treaty is seen as a positive step in this direction. Second, the Kremlin is open to the idea of putting an end to mutual expulsions of diplomats and creating a more conducive environment for the two countries’ embassies to work normally and maintain channels of communication. Third, Moscow is interested in expanding mechanisms for incident management. The channel between the two joint chiefs of joint staff is already productive when it comes to deconfliction in Syria and avoiding dangerous military incidents when Russian and U.S. military aircraft and ships operate in close proximity. The Russian leadership would welcome the expansion of these channels to other bilateral problem areas. Conversations taking place regularly between U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a long-time Putin ally, are considered a good model for other security officials.

Finally, Moscow would ideally like a discussion with Washington about interference in each other’s domestic affairs, and to establish some ground rules for such behavior. This would include a dialogue that the Kremlin was about to launch with the Obama administration in 2016 on the political use of cyber warfare. But the Kremlin is not about to admit to its role in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections, and doesn’t expect that Washington will drop its support for pro-democracy forces in Russia, including the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The list of mutual grievances runs much longer, but with some dialogue on these elements in place, competition between the United States and Russia could become more predictable and manageable while avoiding abrupt and dangerous escalation. But putting this vision into practice may be challenging for at least three reasons.

First, the task of agreeing on arms control beyond the extension of New START will be difficult, as both sides have different visions and goals that will be very hard to reconcile. Moscow wants to arrive at what it calls a comprehensive “strategic equation:” a treaty mechanism that will cover all new weapons systems, including not only the traditional nuclear triad, but also strategic non-nuclear weapons (like high-precision intercontinental missiles), cyberspace, and space capabilities. The United States is interested in dialogue on a less ambitious agenda. At the same time, both parties are aggressively developing new types of offensive capabilities. For example, the U.S. Army is working on a new conventional land-based midrange missile, while Russia is building the new “Sarmat” intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as a whole range of new systems unveiled by Putin in 2018. Then there is China, which both Russia and the United States need to take into account when talking about arms limits or additional mechanisms for transparency. The intellectual and diplomatic challenges of reaching a deal will be enormous, and measurable progress may not happen on Biden’s watch. Meanwhile, all the elements of the old arms control system that used to anchor the U.S.-Russian relationship are becoming history—like the Open Skies Treaty, which Moscow pulled out of just last week after Washington had already done so under former President Donald Trump. Given Putin’s obsession with strategic weapons, and the Pentagon’s effort to be ahead of competitors in this race, it is reasonable to expect that strategic arms will remain a source of tension rather than a stabilizing force.

Secondly, the most significant crises between Russia and the West in recent years originated in former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Georgia. Despite significant leverage that Moscow and the West have in those countries, local developments are beyond the control of both the Kremlin and the White House. What began as a domestic crisis of the Viktor Yanukovych regime in Ukraine in 2013-2014 resulted in the most significant rupture between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War. With continued instability in Ukraine, and the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko fighting for survival by brutalizing the opposition with Russia’s not-so-quiet support, this contested space could easily become a source for another damaging crisis.

Finally, the idea of deescalation between Moscow and Washington will be hostage to the Russian political calendar. With September’s parliamentary elections approaching fast, the Kremlin needs the United States as a bogeyman for its political campaigns, and separating a domestic propaganda fight against U.S. hegemony from a real one will be a hard task. It’s also difficult to imagine that the United States and its allies will stop criticizing Russia for its adventurism in foreign policy or crackdown on the opposition at home, which the Kremlin will consider interference in domestic Russian affairs. Multiple players within the Russian security system have turned confrontation with the West into a currency that helps to obtain promotions and more resources. And even if the Kremlin manages to rein in the state security services, the rise of less controllable government proxies such as private military companies and hacker groups will make it a much harder challenge.

That, unfortunately, does not leave much space for negotiations at Wednesday’s summit and beyond. If somewhat improved communication channels are the best hope for avoiding a dangerous collision in the next four years, the foundations for optimism are thin indeed.

Alexander Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Twitter: @AlexGabuev

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.