It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a candidate in possession of the presidency, must be in want of a new Russia policy. (And people to advise on and apply it). Joseph Biden’s asymptotic election – always getting closer to being recognised and locked in, never quite there – has generated the inevitable array of advocacy pieces and with it a rhetorical arms race, as commentators compete to be more trenchant, more insightful and, it seems, more hawkish.
Before the elections, the debate seemed to be encapsulated by two open letters published in Politico, each bearing the signatures of serried luminaries of the US scholar-practitioner field. The first, endorsed by such figures as Fiona Hill, 14 former ambassadors (including 4 to Russia) and George Schultz, argued that America “must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be, fully utilising our strengths but open to diplomacy,” balancing sanctions that are “judiciously targeted and used in conjunction with other elements of national power, especially diplomacy” with an understanding that “while maintaining our defence, we should also engage Russia in a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.”
The response characterised this as a call for another re-set – evoking Barack Obama’s ill-starred and ill-thought-through initiative during the Medvedev presidency – and instead argued that “the actions and behaviour of Vladimir Putin’s regime pose a threat to American interests and values, requiring strong pushback.” Instead, it calls for tougher sanctions, direct support for Russian civil society and in general, that “America should signal our readiness to work with a Russian government only when it is clear that Moscow doesn’t view the United States as the enemy.”
This was a fairly predictable division between what one could call “realists” and “hawks.” Neither side consider Putin’s Russia to be anything other than a kleptocracy, a threat and a problem, but they had an honest disagreement as to how best to respond.
Hawking their wares
Since the election, though, there has been a distinct hardening of the tone from much of the individual op-eds and policy pieces. Whether this is simply because that is the side of the debate that feels most confident, or conversely whether it is because it seems the “realists” are in the ascendant and they must shout their case all the more loudly, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, this is an alarming escalation, even though there are also of course many more positive interventions, on topics such as arms control and “stopping the new Cold War.”
Just to pick a few examples, in Foreign Policy, David Kramer – a prime mover behind the second Politico letter – asserted flatly that “Russia under Putin poses an existential threat to the United States and other countries of the West, Russia’s neighbours and his own people.” Let’s just pause there for a moment: existential threat? A threat to the very existence of not, say, American democracy (which itself would be quite an admission of fundamental doubt in the system), but America and the West? This implies something not just about Russian capability but also intent, and it is hard to see any evidence that Putin is trying to destroy – not weaken, or challenge, or chasten, but destroy – the United States.
In the Washington Examiner, Janusz Bugajski warned against the “mistaken assumption repeated by incoming administrations is that Washington can work constructively with Putin’s Kremlin in confronting global challenges.” In other words, it is a fallacy even to try to work with Russia on even the most egregious areas of common interest.
Meanwhile, to give a final example, Thomas Kent, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, delivered a call for America to reach out to the Russian people not with scholarships and visa relaxations but with a propaganda campaign that could – and in fairness, he says could, not should – even be used for “inflaming popular discontent in Russia, already on the rise, with the goal of sparking a “colour revolution” that would bring down Putin’s regime.” He goes on to admit that “any hope that Western messaging to the general Russian population can chase Putin from office is probably fanciful” but simply to raise the notion plays into every Kremlin concern about Western gibridnaya voina.
The fundamental assumptions of these interventions are:
1. Putin and Russia are essentially to blame for the worsening in relations, and to delve too deeply into why the Russians act and believe as they do is somehow a step towards accepting the undeniably aggressive and sometimes vicious Kremlin behaviour. Yet to ignore why they themselves feel aggrieved and under threat is to risk worsening the situation.
2. Putin’s legitimacy rests on his aggressive foreign policy. This is only half true; unable at present to offer Russians an improved quality of life in return for loyalty, he tried initially to win it with empire – Crimea – but as it became clear that was a one-off case, now instead he seeks to demand it as the price for defending the Motherland from a hostile outside world. The tougher the Western rhetoric, the better for him, in that respect.
3. Under Trump, US policy was soft on Russia, and so the answer is to toughen up. Whatever The Donald’s peculiarly fanboyish utterances about Vladimir, at no point did he exert political capital to hinder sanctions or otherwise cosy up with Moscow. US-Russian relations are more confrontational than at any point since 1991, and so the notion that the problem has been simply a lack of toughness seems hard to sustain.
It is not that there are no virtues in all the specific policy prescriptions embodied in all these articles. Attacking Russian dirty money, something both Kramer and Bugajski discuss, is not going to have any meaningful impact on Kremlin policy, but it is worth doing on its own merits. (And hopefully attacking Chinese, Saudi and even American dirty money soon will follow.) Likewise, there is value in demonstrating a certain information warfare capability, and certainly striking back directly at troll farms and other purveyors of toxic misinformation, as Kent suggests.
However, the leitmotif is too often both that Putin’s regime ought to be brought down and also that this is part of asserting that America is back as the world’s best and only superpower. In Kramer’s words, to “send a strong signal that there is a new sheriff in town.”
Russia policy ought not to be national psychotherapy after four years of Trumpian dysfunction. It also needs to be careful that it does not prove wholly counter-productive – there ought to be a strong Hippocratic commitment to “first, do no harm.” Obama’s re-set was predicated on the possibility of building up the supposed liberal Medvedev but actually contributed to ensuring that Putin felt there was no alternative to his return to the presidency.
Meanwhile in Moscow…
Likewise, the risk is that if such policy proposals and overall stance look likely to be adopted by the Biden administration – even if, like most grand strategies, they end up diluted, delayed and diverted by bureaucratic inertia and the pace of events – they will condition Moscow’s response.
At present, there seems to be an interesting attempt to signal the need for a less confrontational foreign policy in Moscow. Those three ubiquitous bellwethers of the Russian foreign policy elite, Dmitri Trenin, Fedor Lukyanov and Andrei Kortunov, have all made their own contributions.
Trenin recently commented that “Russia is learning to mind its limitations; to repel residual nostalgia; and to think straight, putting issues before personalities, and staying focused on its own interests, leaving the empire farther and farther behind.”
To Lukyanov, “Russian foreign policy at the new stage should become much more selfish and much less emotional” such that “the main issue for the next period is risk minimisation.”
As for Kortunov, he warned that, rather than committing itself to “war to the bitter end”, the Kremlin ought to contemplate a “a new Brest-Litovsk Peace.” Evoking the controversial treaty that got Bolshevik Russia out of the First World War but at terrible territorial cost, brought Kortunov under the guns of the ultra-nationalist Orthodox Katehon think-tank as “speaking on behalf of the liberal sixth column.” Nonetheless, this is not likely to have been an analogy he used thoughtlessly or lightly.
It is not that these figures, all “hybrid scholars” with both independence and close official connections, are signalling the onset of a kinder, gentler Russian foreign policy. Rather, it seems likely that they see a potential window of opportunity, a moment in which they can advocate for a less confrontational and ideological one in the wake of Biden’s victory.
In an ironic mirror-imaging, these are the Russian counterparts – in their own very different ways – to the “realists” behind the first Politico letter, and if America’s hawks gain the ascendant in the new presidency, or even just seem likely to, then their Russian counterparts will reassert their control of Kremlin thinking. This is, after all, a crossroads moment in Moscow, as well as Washington.