US-Russia Relations: The New Normal Is the Old Normal - OZY | A Modern Media Company

US-Russia Relations: The New Normal Is the Old Normal

US-Russia Relations: The New Normal Is the Old Normal

By John McLaughlin

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Washington and Moscow have gotten back to normal discourse. And "the mundane never looked so good."

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Now that the summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is over, where does it leave U.S.-Russian relations? In a much better place in my view, and in a form that allows us to measure progress, or lack of it. During the last four years the relationship sunk to the lowest, and weirdest, level in decades. Yes, tensions with Putin have been on the rise since 2008, beginning with Russia’s intervention in Georgia. Any normal discourse was simply frozen, however, during the Trump years, due largely to the still-unexplained contrast between former President Donald Trump’s fawning attitude toward Putin and the disgust almost everyone felt about Moscow’s meddling in our elections.

But wait a minute. If deep divisions remain, why do I say relations are in a better place? Because we have returned to a normal relationship with Moscow — meaning we have harsh, and on some issues, irreconcilable differences but can imagine cooperating on some areas where we have overlapping vital interests.

Both leaders can interpret the event as a success. Biden, in sparse but perfect words, told Putin “what I want him to know.” He was able to register the importance of resuming strategic stability talks (focused on nuclear issues), table strong objections to Russian cyber mischief, urge an end to its war on Ukraine and score Russia for a deplorable human rights record — especially its unsparing, near-fatal abuse of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In all of this, Biden was able to draw a distinct contrast with Trump’s approach and especially Trump’s lack of transparency in dealing with Putin.

In my experience, it is important to be as direct and clear with Russia as Biden apparently was. They will never fess up, and their standard response is always to demand your evidence — which you can only partly supply because it is usually based on intelligence reporting. Some may argue this is a dead end — but it is not: It matters that they know that we know. In at least one instance I recall, their behavior did moderate on an issue of grievance for the U.S after, at the direction of the White House, I had an exchange with them in the late 1990s along the above lines.

US-Russia Summit 2021 In Geneva

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange last week in Geneva, Switzerland.

Putin, for his part, craves respect above all else. In Geneva, he got it. Biden managed to treat Putin as a serious rival from a serious country — without lavishing praise. Everything from his arrival ceremony to the atmospherics — the huge Russian plane landing, driving about the elegant streets of Geneva, meeting in a historic palace and holding a press conference covered worldwide — all of this is roughly equivalent to the treatment Biden received. Such symbolism matters and, skillfully handled, it can be given without surrendering leverage. And the chance to address his home audience on television worldwide is a huge plus for any Russian leader whose public is broadly nationalistic and patriotic, even if they have grievances with the official expressing it.

Among the issues the two dealt with, two stand out as having overarching significance for both countries: nuclear arms control and cybersecurity. The massive nuclear arsenals of the two countries are matters of global concern, so all countries will welcome an agreement to resume formal talks on this. Although Putin and Biden renewed the New Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) treaty for five years by simple signature, much negotiation is ahead to extend and update the treaty, or craft a new one that takes account of emerging U.S. and Russian concerns not addressed in the original. 

The Russians, for example, worry that U.S. progress on long-range precision conventional weapons poses a threat not covered when the treaty was signed in 2011 and could alter the balance between the two countries.  They also worry that U.S advances in missile defense could neutralize the value of many Russian systems. The U.S., meanwhile, worries that newly claimed Russian weapons such as hypersonic missiles are not covered. Hypersonics travel at Mach 5 speed and thus can outmaneuver any U.S. missile defense system, cut warning time dramatically and leave ambiguity as to whether an incoming missile is conventional or nuclear.

It is equally important that the two leaders agreed to start a dialogue on cybersecurity. Biden was explicit in giving Putin a list of 16 infrastructure and other areas that he considered off-limits for cyber or physical attack, saying any breaches would draw a tough U.S. response. This would require Putin to clamp down on Russian criminal groups that may be outside government control but presumably operate with Moscow’s tolerance. Talks like this are important because, between Russia and the U.S., there is little understanding or consensus on basic rules for cyberwarfare, unlike nuclear issues on which we have decades of negotiating experience and a fair degree of transparency. With cyber, there is little experience on what constitutes or justifies escalation or the dynamics of deterrence.

For both nuclear and cyber issues, we will have metrics — talks either begin or do not, hacking either ends or does not. That is true to a degree on other things they discussed — Ukraine, prisoner swaps, human rights — but cyber and nuclear cut across so many domains and affect so many countries as to rise to special importance.

Watching the two leaders, I kept thinking: It’s hard for either of them to surprise or shock each other because each has seen it all in his own way. In their public comments, the themes were realism and pragmatism — Putin saying it was not about “family trust” and Biden saying it was not “a “Kumbaya” moment.” This is all to the good because the last thing you need in relations between two nuclear superpowers is a lot of chest-beating and impulsiveness. As someone said in response to a tweet I posted on the summit: “The mundane never looked so good.”   

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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