The Times columnist Bret Stephens hosted an online conversation with Emma Ashford, a senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, and Stephen Sestanovich, who worked on Russia policy at the State Department and was on the National Security Council in the Reagan and Clinton administrations. They discussed the meeting of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the challenges and opportunities of the United States-Russia relationship and its impact on the globe.
Bret Stephens: Hi, Emma and Steve. Thinking over Vladimir Putin’s many first meetings with his five American counterparts — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden — I can’t think of one in which he didn’t wind up betraying his promises and deeply disappointing American hopes. Any reason to think Wednesday’s Geneva summit will be remembered any differently?
Emma Ashford: It’s certainly true that past administrations have often failed to follow through with their rosy promises of a reset with Russia or have been overtaken by events. But the tone today was very different and very pragmatic. There was some rhetoric about human rights, but it mostly wasn’t about trying to improve this relationship or get concrete promises from Putin but rather about stabilizing the relationship and stopping it from becoming even more damaging and dangerous.
Stephen Sestanovich: A Russian friend of mine — no friend of Putin, I should add — said his definition of a good summit would be one that a) ended early, b) was followed by no joint news conference, c) got Putin no invitation to visit the White House (he hasn’t visited in more than 15 years!) and d) produced only an agreement to keep the experts talking. Check. Check. Check. Check.
Yes, Biden clearly had all those past meetings in mind and decided he had to do better.
Stephens: It seemed to me that the key line from Biden’s news conference was, “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
Ashford: Pretty Reaganesque phrasing from Biden. It was a consistent theme: The administration is creating an opening to move to a more productive U.S.-Russia dialogue. The concrete steps they agreed to — a return of the ambassadors to Moscow and Washington, strategic stability and talks on cybersecurity — are opportunities to have constructive dialogue with Russia in areas where there is some prospect for progress. They’re deprioritizing the areas of real contention and waiting to see if Russia will engage productively on these other topics.
Stephens: And he made it clear that the United States would be able to verify Moscow’s behavior very soon.
Sestanovich: I agree with you about his emphasis on verifying, but I would quibble with your words “very soon.” It’s true Biden put a pretty short fuse on the working-level discussions that are supposed to start. But diplomats and military officers and experts of all kinds have a way of dragging things out. I’m expecting the arms control discussions to be glacial. On other issues, by contrast, the level of skepticism among the Biden folks is very high, and they may be inclined to say time’s up early — on ransomware, for example. All it’ll take is one more nasty hack.
Stephens: It’s difficult for me to see Putin engaging in anything in a genuinely constructive way. He has an almost unbroken 21-year track record of bullying and invading his neighbors, destroying Russia’s civil institutions, cheating on arms-control agreements, interfering in foreign elections, imprisoning his political opponents, supporting the Bashar al-Assads of the world and undermining global security. Even his supposed support for green movements in Europe seems to have had the purpose of increasing the continent’s dependence on his energy supplies.
Ashford: Look, Putin is a terrible person and a bad leader for the people of Russia.
Stephens: Is there any hope for this leopard to change his spots?
Ashford: It’s important to understand that Putin isn’t the source of all of our problems with Russia. The Russia we have today is the Russia we have, not some imagined Russia that would be better on issues like human rights.
Sestanovich: I used to think of Putin as a pretty protean figure — a critic would say because he has no soul or fixed principles. His comparatively liberal first term was different from the second, which involved a lot of tightening up and central control, and his “third” — when Dmitri Medvedev played president for four years — was different from the fourth, which brought us the Ukraine crisis.
Now, after more than two decades in charge, he finally seems pretty locked into his current self.
Ashford: What I see here from the Biden administration is an attempt to build a framework for dealing with Russia that acknowledges there are some U.S. interests that are more vital than others. Biden clearly said that he laid out some red lines on cyber- and election meddling with Putin. And the administration seems to think there are some issues that are important enough to work with Russia on. Strategic stability and the ability to de-escalate military crises remain essential, no matter who is in the Kremlin.
Sestanovich: Emma’s right that Putin isn’t the only problem we have with Russia. The real issue is Putinism — meaning a system dominated by what I call the military-intelligence complex, a deep state that increasingly reaches into every corner of society. Biology tells us Putin will pass. We don’t know what will become of Putinism, and shouldn’t assume it’s eternal, but its fate may be known only when its author is out of the picture.
Stephens: In the years of détente, in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger tried to lay out a code of conduct with the Soviet Union that spelled opportunities for better relations as well as consequences for bad behavior. I’m not sure it did much to keep Leonid Brezhnev from invading Afghanistan.
The key question, to me at least, is if the Biden administration has the means and will to impose meaningful consequences on Putin himself — along with his inner circle — if they continue to violate international norms.
Ashford: Détente may not have prevented the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but it did result in major arms control agreements, notably those signed as a result of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. And I think that’s what the Biden administration is aiming for here: not an attempt to resolve every problem in the U.S.-Russia relationship but a focus on areas where progress is possible and necessary.
Sestanovich: I’m sure Putin would love to think that he was being invited by the United States to revive the glory days of détente, but that’s not at all how I’d describe what Biden says he offered. Richard Nixon and Kissinger did not upbraid Brezhnev for human rights abuses, they didn’t go on at length about how the United States would push back against Soviet objectionable initiatives, and they didn’t say the Soviet Union’s reputation depended on whether other governments respected Moscow’s approach to major international problems. Russian-American relations are in a very different place now — and despite the frequent comparisons Russians make between Brezhnev and Putin, we’re not going back
Ashford: It also sounds like Biden told Putin some specific areas where the United States would retaliate if Russia took further steps, which is welcome. That specificity is far more likely to succeed in deterring Russian bad behavior than a generic warning about violating international norms.
Stephens: I agree that Biden’s approach was, as Emma pointed out earlier, closer to Reagan’s than it was to Nixon’s. Here’s a question for the two of you: What is the evidence that Putin particularly cares about his reputation or that he’s paid any price for harming it? A British court concluded that he approved the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, using a radioactive toxin in 2006. Putin shrugged it off, and Russian agents were poisoning other enemies in Britain just a few years later. Russia violated the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but the Biden administration is still interested in further arms control.
Ashford: I don’t think Putin does care about his international reputation. This was the area of Biden’s remarks that I thought was weakest. Certainly, Biden wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t entirely ignoring the issue of human rights, but the notion that Putin will be persuaded not to do these things because of reputational costs wasn’t particularly plausible.
Stephens: Putin seems to do exactly what he pleases — and gets away with it.
Sestanovich: Biden’s answer to all your doubts was simple: He shares them. He said we’ll know in coming months whether we’ve got a dialogue that matters, whether the Russians are prepared to talk seriously — and act accordingly — about any of the problems the leaders ticked off today. Still, I’m not so sure that Putin is as indifferent to reputation as you say. Wouldn’t he like to be invited back into international polite society? Russians are highly status conscious, and for all Western governments to treat him as a loathsome creep has got to hurt. The question is, what if anything will he do to make himself more presentable?
Ashford: In order to put red lines around the issues we really care about — like election meddling — we might have to deprioritize some of these other issues, and Biden seems to understand that trade-off.
On arms control, it’s worth noting that the United States has also taken some problematic steps — withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, for example. It just highlights the need for a new discussion and framework for arms control talks.
Sestanovich: Today, to my mind, Biden got pretty close to squaring the circle — having a meeting with Putin without actually according him much respect. Good work!
Stephens: I agree with Steve that Biden’s performance was much better than his predecessors’ — no peering into his soul à la Bush or Russia reset à la Obama, to say nothing of Trump’s infamous performance at Helsinki. But those are low bars to clear.
Ashford: The only way this could have gone worse than Trump’s Helsinki summit was if Biden had turned up drunk. Even then, perhaps not.
Stephens: The test of the Biden administration will probably come six months or a year down the road, if and when Putin steps over a red line and the administration has to figure out how to respond. If you were devising options for Biden (and maybe you are), what are some of the steps you might recommend?
Ashford: In terms of options for the president, today made it clear that the administration is thinking about this in the right way. America has been stuck in the mind-set that we wait for Russia to do something bad and then we punish them for it. It would be far better to work on deterring them from doing it in the first place.
Sestanovich: The most important thing the administration — and those of us watching and grading it — needs to realize is that a lot of things we have to do to protect ourselves against Russian activities we disapprove of are matters of our own choice. We don’t need Russian agreement to build more resilience into our tech-dependent society and economy. Nor to help Ukraine stand on its feet against Russian provocations. Nor to to make sure Afghanistan does not explode. And certainly not — to pick one issue Putin loves to taunt us with these days — to prevent anything like Jan. 6 from ever happening again.
Ashford: The most interesting remark at the news conference was Biden’s account of how he asked Putin to think about how a cyberattack on a pipeline — similar to the one that crippled Colonial Pipeline last month — would impact Russia’s oil exports. It was also a veiled threat and one that should, hopefully, give Putin cause to think about his future actions. More important, it sounds like the administration didn’t issue any red lines that it didn’t intend to stand behind. That’s a mistake past administrations have often made — they’re not plausible deterrents, and they don’t work.
Sestanovich: A last thing we need to do — keep our allies with us. On this, I have a somewhat different take about what Biden was doing in Geneva: He was asserting his role as the principal interlocutor with Putin, the principal judge of whether Russian policy adjustments are significant. The European Union just issued a predictably long statement on the bleak outlook for relations with Russia, but European governments don’t agree about what to do. Biden took the wheel today. He’s driving Western policy now.
Stephens: Last question: What’s the best way for the Biden administration to help safeguard human rights in Russia? My hope would be a Navalny Act that’s a follow-up to the Magnitsky Act, but this is surely an area where this administration needs to consider all the good ideas it can get.
Sestanovich: I have two problems with your Navalny Act. The first is that it really wouldn’t add anything to existing executive branch authority. Second, as heroic a figure as he is — Navalny is courageous and smart and funny too — we need to keep from overpersonalizing this struggle.
Ashford: But it’s pretty clear that the punitive, broad approach to human rights in Russia has achieved very little. Magnitsky sanctions have been ineffective. If anything, U.S. pressure in recent years has prompted crackdowns on dissidents within Russia. So we have to be realistic about our ability to influence domestic affairs inside Russia, particularly on issues where the Kremlin feels the regime is threatened, as in the case of Navalny.
About the only thing we might be able to do is to rob Putin of his ability to use the United States as a boogeyman. When Putin can portray the United States as meddling in Russia or attacking Russian interests, it helps him domestically. A shift to a less confrontational U.S.-Russia relationship might actually be helpful. But the prospects for success on human rights are almost nonexistent. The Biden team is correct to make its focus on human rights primarily rhetorical, rather than practical.
Sestanovich: Under Putin, Russia is moving in a pretty brutal and repressive direction. It’s driven by his insecurity and that of people around him as to what their future would be if the opposition were free to organize, if the media were free to report and if elections were honest. So there’s a lot at stake for them. Biden is right to say we’re going to keep calling them out. He said he told Putin the consequences for Russia if Navalny dies in prison would be “devastating.” The right thing to say.
But Russia’s future depends on whether a broad movement forms, at all levels of society, based on a determination to rebuild their country. That enormous task is Putin’s legacy.
Stephens: True, though great movements sometimes coalesce around great figures, as they did in South Africa with Nelson Mandela and Poland with Lech Walesa. It will be fascinating to see what comes next. Thanks to you both for weighing in so wisely.
Bret Stephens is a Times Opinion columnist. Emma Ashford (@EmmaMAshford) is a senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.”
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