The two major foreign policy challenges facing the Biden administration are Russia and China. Both of these countries are governed by ugly, brutal regimes, but they are regimes with which the US perforce must deal, while minimizing the risks of destructive conflict.
The US needs to live with Russia if only because it has the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal and because there are areas (e.g., Iran, Syria, cyberwarfare) in which the difference between cooperation and conflict between the two countries can be very consequential.
Putin’s foreign policy reflects a mixture of traditional Russian national security concerns with a drive to reassert the great power status that Russia lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The US’s stance toward Russia needs to reflect the acknowledgment that Putin’s Russia has legitimate grievances against the US. Such acknowledgment continues generally to elude our foreign policy influentials, who tend to see our Russia problems in fairly simple good guys (us, naturally) vs. bad guys terms. (For example, see this op-ed by a celebrated victim of a Trump purge.) The most important Russian grievance is the relentless expansion of NATO eastward towards Russia’s borders. It’s also worth mentioning that American interference in Russian politics, via the government-financed National Endowment for Democracy, long pre-dates Russia’s mischief in the 2016 presidential campaign.
So, we need to work toward an accommodation with Russia that actually offers the Russians something: Make it clear that NATO expansion is finished and over. The two leading candidates for new NATO membership—Ukraine and Georgia—will remain neutral. In return, Russia gets its troops out of those countries and pledges to respect their independence. And, yes, we can live with the Russian takeover of Crimea, since that’s what the mostly ethnically Russian Crimeans want anyway. We also should work towards a mutual non-interference pact with regard to domestic politics—the Russians cease and desist in their attempts to de-stabilize Western democracies; we don’t interfere in Putin’s autocracy. That doesn’t mean we ignore the most glaring of Putin’s offenses—for example, we should make plain our revulsion at the persecution of dissidents like Alexei Navalny–but it does mean that we don’t actively promote political change in Russia. We should aim for a similar mutual non-interference pact with regard to cyber security.
I don’t mean to imply that any of this will be easy. It won’t, but the necessary modus vivendi with Russia will be still harder to reach without some changes in perspective in Washington.
China poses a different set of problems, which I’ll discuss in a separate post.