November 09, 2020
Since the Cold War victory, every incoming administration believed it possessed the magic formula to turn Russia into a strategic partner. Every time, the administration has been misled by the Kremlin and ended up trying to contain a new act of aggression.
A Joe Biden administration can avoid such pitfalls from the outset by devising a firmer policy to constrict Moscow’s ambitions and increase NATO deterrents.
Throughout his presidency, Trump believed that he could establish cooperative relations with Vladimir Putin but was prevented by his national security team from capitulating to naivety. Fortunately, they understood that Russia was an adversary challenging American influence and security.
Biden must now avoid the “reset” trap that President Barack Obama succumbed to in the forlorn hope that a show of goodwill would soften the Kremlin.
The Kremlin is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to dismantle the West and divide America. Appeasement only helps to reinvigorate that objective, especially if it is premised on two erroneous assumptions: that Russia has legitimate interests in European security and that Washington can forge a productive partnership with Moscow.
Russia’s revisionist plans have been evident ever since Moscow drafted its European Security Treaty following the invasion of Georgia in 2008. It claimed that Russia itself could guarantee the security of its former satellites. The treaty was rejected by all states, but the primary goals of Kremlin policy have remained unchanged: strategic control of the post-Soviet area, rolling back NATO, and limiting America’s role.
Moscow has sought to impose its dominance by attacking and dismembering Georgia and Ukraine and is poised to fully capture Belarus. Russia’s often touted “legitimate interests” are barely disguised claims to control the foreign and security policies of neighbors that were once part of the Soviet empire. Moreover, the relentless campaign of political, social, economic, and informational subversion is calculated to weaken Western institutions and willpower.
A second mistaken assumption repeated by incoming administrations is that Washington can work constructively with Putin’s Kremlin in confronting global challenges. The one exception in which both sides have a stake is an extension of the New START non-proliferation agreement, which expires in February 2021. But Washington needs to be careful not to allow Moscow to gain a strategic nuclear advantage. In almost every other arena, Moscow actively cultivates conflicts from which it undermines American influence.
The Kremlin undermines Europe’s energy security and corrupts Western politicians. It constantly threatens NATO allies along the eastern flank through military buildups, snap exercises, and border violations. It nurtures armed conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan to keep neighbors off balance and outside Western institutions. Its interventions in the western Balkans contribute to stirring interstate disputes that Washington and Brussels struggle to resolve.
Moscow does not abide by international agreements, as the purpose of negotiations is to trick the adversary into conceding ground for its previous aggression. The unimplemented Six Point Peace Plan in Georgia, the broken agreement to withdraw troops from Moldova, and the violated Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity, are the most glaring examples of Moscow’s duplicity.
A more assertive U.S. policy toward Russia needs to be crafted with close allied cooperation. The Biden White House can focus on crucial vulnerabilities that the Kremlin exploits to its advantage, including disinformation, corruption, and funding of rightist and leftist extremism. Moscow’s influence can also be undercut by reinforcing military deterrence along NATO’s eastern flank, bringing Georgia into NATO, offering a path to membership for Ukraine, encouraging reforms that facilitate faster EU integration for the western Balkan states, and supporting human rights, democracy, and genuine federalism inside Russia.
The Kremlin will propose geopolitical agreements that may look appealing but will be designed to raise Russia’s influence at America’s expense. It will also push for lifting economic sanctions on oligarchs and state enterprises embroiled in Moscow’s anti-Western offensives. U.S. policy should not sacrifice transatlantic security in the forlorn hope that Russia can become a trusted partner.
The last “reset” with Moscow in 2009 lowered Western defenses and culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another benign approach will simply give the green light to further assaults on neighboring states and Western democracies.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.