Prospects for relations between Russia and the United States after the summit in Geneva
The Russia-US summit in Geneva will certainly not lead to a qualitative improvement in Russian-American relations and will not be able to initiate a process that would lead to a change of their confrontational nature within the next several years. This is impossible, due to the systemic nature of the confrontation between Russia and the United States. Overcoming this would require one or both sides to fundamentally change their approach to the international order and their place in it; a strong bipartisan anti-Russian consensus persists among the American political elite and establishment, despite an acute polarisation of the political system in the USA.
The task of the Geneva summit is different: to stabilise the Russian-American confrontation, to put an end to its unhealthy nature and uncontrollable course of recent years, and to form a model of relations in which the parties, despite considering each other as opponents and even enemies, nevertheless will try not to cross each other’s red lines. They also can develop selective cooperation on those issues where it is expedient for their national interests and where this cooperation does not require significant concessions. This model can be defined as controlled or disciplined confrontation.
The main reason that the summit in Geneva is taking place is that the further escalation of the Russian-American confrontation would otherwise undoubtedly lead to an even greater aggravation of the Ukrainian conflict, the situation around Belarus and a large-scale spiral of the arms race. This does not correspond to either Russian or American interests (as they are understood by the Biden administration).
For Russia, such an escalation would be fraught with the emergence of anti-Russian sanctions to a qualitatively new level, the need to increase military spending (today the Russian leadership is cutting defence spending and is proud of it), and an even greater deterioration in relations with European and Asian allies and partners of the United States (not only with the EU as a whole). It would also lead to the further strengthening of Russia’s asymmetric dependence on China, not to mention the humanitarian consequences of a new escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine and the increased risk of a direct military clash with the United States and NATO as a whole. Moscow, obviously, would like to avoid all this.
The interest of the Biden administration in stabilising the confrontation with Moscow is connected, firstly, with the Chinese factor. Since January this year, it became finally clear that the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, which was launched under Trump, is irreversible, systemic and existential for both sides, and therefore it is deeper and more long-term than the confrontation between the United States and Russia. Contrary to the hopes of many observers, there was no detente in US-China relations, and the Biden administration has made it clear that it regards China, and not Russia, as its main strategic rival and adversary.
At the same time, Washington is gradually understanding the limitations of its own resources and the need to concentrate on the Pacific sphere; a vivid example is the Biden administration’s desire to limit the obligations and presence of the United States in the Middle East. The White House also sees further rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, which has increased in tandem with their opposition to the United States, as undesirable. As a result, the Biden administration seeks to stabilise the “Russian front” in order not to be distracted and to be able to throw as many resources as possible at the “Chinese front”.
Second, as the events of this spring have proved, the Biden administration, on the one hand, is not ready to invest serious material resources in containing Russia in the post-Soviet space, and even less enthusiastic about going to war with Russia because of such countries as Ukraine and Georgia. On the other hand, Washington would not like to witness the termination of their statehood.
The stabilisation of confrontation does not at all mean the resolution of the most acute conflicts and contradictions in Russian-American relations. The contradictions around Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, mutual allegations of interference in internal political affairs, Russia’s accusations of illegal hostile activities and even a “hybrid war” against the Western countries will most likely not be reduced following the summit. The prospect of a fundamental change in the foreign policy of Russia and the United States and serious compromises between them is still absent. Such compromises would be reasonably viewed by both sides as steps towards a strategic defeat, which for the time being is completely ruled out by both Moscow and Washington. In this regard, the stabilisation of the confrontation does not mean the resolution of these contradictions, but the absence of their further escalation.
At the same time, this stabilisation requires understanding, and, most importantly, respect for each other’s red lines. There is no doubt that these red lines will be discussed in Geneva. The ability of the parties to recognise and adhere to them is doubtful, especially in the longer term. For example, the United States will not only not give up open support for Russia’s domestic opposition in the near future, but will increase criticism of the Kremlin over internal political issues in the event of new protests. The parties will also not come to an agreement on what “Russian interference” in America’s internal political processes entail, and where the “red lines” are. Finally, there are great risks of destabilisation of many of the above crises “from below”, contrary to the wishes of Moscow or Washington. For example, the Ukrainian or Belarusian crises, which will inevitably entail a new round of confrontation and complicate interaction on other issues as well. Therefore, the stabilisation of confrontation, which is likely to follow the summit in Geneva, will be very fragile.
The second most important result of the summit is likely to be the launch of selective cooperation in bilateral and multilateral formats on issues where it is beneficial to both parties and does not require qualitative concessions from the parties. This, in turn, will mean a significant improvement in Russian-American relations compared to the state in which they have been for the past several years. Namely, building a policy towards each other based on national interests and national security considerations, as well as the ability to combine rivalry and cooperation where it is necessary and beneficial.
In recent years, this was impossible. Under Trump, the Russian factor became one of the main instruments of America’s internal political struggle, and US policy towards Russia was determined by domestic political considerations to a much greater extent than foreign policy itself. This ruled out any constructive interaction in principle. The White House was forced to constantly prove that it was not a “Kremlin puppet”, and Congress sought to weaken Trump’s ability to determine US foreign policy, making confrontation with Russia irreversible. Coupled with the Republicans’ traditional preference for maximum freedom in defence policy and the desire to put pressure on opponents with the threat of an arms race, this led to the fact that by the end of 2020 the Russian-American agenda virtually disappeared, and the mechanisms of relations (summits, diplomatic dialogue) collapsed. An illustration of the latter is the diplomatic war that has been going on for more than four years, the recall of ambassadors and the actual paralysis of consular relations.
Today the situation is gradually improving. Although Russia still remains a factor in the American internal political struggle (and will remain so as long as the polarisation of the US political system persists), the scale of the politicisation of the Russian factor has significantly decreased since the end of the Trump period. Biden’s foreign policy does not provoke resistance, at least from his own administration, bureaucracy and among Democrats, and in any case he cannot be accused of any sympathy for the Russian president. Moreover, the Biden administration does not view the arms race as a preferential instrument of confrontation with Russia and does not seek the complete destruction of the remnants of the arms control system. Finally, the Biden administration perceives transnational challenges and threats (climate change, the pandemic, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc.) as significantly more important in the hierarchy of threats to national security, and prefers a multilateral approach to their solution.
All this creates the preconditions for selective cooperation with Russia on issues where both sides consider this cooperation necessary and beneficial for themselves.
First of all, the result of the Geneva summit may be the launch of broad Russian-American consultations on strategic stability: how to adapt the system to the qualitatively changed military-strategic landscape and what to do after the already-extended START-3 Treaty (the last traditional instrument for nuclear missile control) expires in 2026.
The parties are unlikely to come to a new “big” agreement in the near future on the limitation and even the further reduction of nuclear weapons to replace the START Treaty. Moreover, it is extremely inappropriate to start such negotiations: the positions of the parties differ so much that it is impossible to successfully complete such negotiations. It is unlikely that it will be possible for them to reach an agreement on the deployment of ground-based intermediate and shorter-range missiles in Europe. Nevertheless, a full-scale dialogue between the two nuclear superpowers on all aspects of strategic stability (which has long entailed more than nuclear weapons alone) is extremely expedient. It includes the discussion of how they understand the threat of a nuclear war amid new military-technological and geopolitical conditions, as well as the development of more stringent rules of conduct in the military-strategic sphere, mechanisms of conflict prevention and de-conflicting.
The second area of selective cooperation between Russia and the United States after the Geneva summit is cybersecurity, which includes four main aspects: the fight against cybercrime, the use of ICT as a military tool, interference in each other’s internal affairs using the Internet, social networks, hacking, etc., and cyber espionage. On the first aspect, the intensification of Russian-American cooperation is most likely. The second aspect relates to the military security and strategic stability (with the help of cyber means it is possible to inflict damage comparable to the use of nuclear weapons, or to disarm or “blind” the enemy during a military crisis). Here it is important at least to determine the red lines (to agree on what infrastructure should not be subject to cyberattacks under any circumstances), develop the rules of the game and create de-conflicting mechanisms and “hot lines” in the event of a crisis. This will not be easy, but it is extremely necessary: properly in the cyberspace that the risk of an unintentional military conflict with its further escalation up to a nuclear war is the highest. On the third and fourth aspects, reaching any agreements in the foreseeable future is extremely unlikely.
The third area of cooperation is the intensification of interaction on the nuclear programmes of Iran and the DPRK, especially in the context of the Biden administration’s desire to restore, in one form or another, a multilateral deal on the Iranian nuclear programme and to abandon the practice of bilateral negotiations, especially summits with Pyongyang, used by Donald Trump.
The fourth area of possible cooperation between Russia and the United States is environmental protection and the fight against climate change, which are positioned as one of the most important priorities of the Biden administration and are taking an increasingly important role in Russian foreign policy. Here the parties have something to talk about globally and locally. For example, the United States may suffer from the introduction of the EU carbon border adjustment mechanism (border adjustment carbon tax) within the framework of the European Green Deal, no less and even more than Russia. In the common interests of Moscow and Washington is the creation, as an alternative, of some kind of global mechanism aimed at reducing carbon emissions primarily where it is most beneficial for both countries.
However, the main object of possible cooperation between Moscow and Washington on environmental issues and climate change is the Arctic. In this region, Russia and the United States are part of a shared ‘neighbourhood’, where the rate of climate change is 3-4 times higher than the global average, and where the environmental, socio-economic and foreign policy consequences of this change are the most widespread. The fragile Arctic ecosystem, its infrastructure built on permafrost, and the traditional way of life of the indigenous peoples of the North are under threat of destruction. Moreover, the melting ice of the Arctic contributes to the overflow of the US-Russia and US-China confrontation – the perception of the region, as indicated in the 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, as “an avenue for great power competition and aggression”. As a result, the militarisation of the Arctic is increasing alongside the risk of disasters and military clashes, impeding the economic development of the region. Cooperation between Russia and the United States in protecting the environment in the Arctic is the only factor that can, if not slow down, then at least compensate for these negative trends, combating climate change amid even greater acceleration, addressing the melting permafrost (it is fraught with large-scale methane emissions) and adapting to new climatic conditions in the region.
Finally, the fifth area of possible cooperation between Russia and the United States after the Geneva summit is a “truce” in the diplomatic war and the return of ambassadors to Washington and Moscow, respectively. This is perhaps the easiest and most feasible decision that can be expected from the summit and implemented in the short term.
A distinctive feature of this agenda, which is important for understanding the nature of the managed Russian-American confrontation, is that the beginning of a dialogue on these topics does not require any serious concessions from the parties. This is the most important prerequisite for this cooperation. Moreover, this cooperation should not be seen as a way to improve relations between Russia and the United States. This is generally not on the agenda in the foreseeable future. The meaning of cooperation is to understand Russian and American national interests, which in the indicated areas cannot be realised in other ways, even despite the fact that the parties generally regard each other as opponents.
From our partner RIAC