The Biden Administration and Russia: Steps to Build a More Stable Relationship

Among the many challenges Joseph Biden will face as the new president of the United States is how to handle the American relationship with Russia. US-Russian relations have now deteriorated to a level of mutual hostility comparable to that during the Cold War. Hostility between nations is always a serious concern for peace activists, and hostility between the nations with the largest nuclear weapons arsenals on the planet is cause for special concern. Failure to manage US-Russian relations properly could lead, at best, to a waste of resources on a costly rivalry, and, at worst, to global catastrophe.

In the past, I have argued for pursuing various diplomatic solutions to some of the issues underlying the US-Russian conflict. These underlying issues include provocative American military policies and the Ukrainian civil war.[1] However, after more than 20 years of worsening relations brought about variously by NATO expansion and other hawkish American policies, as well as Russian policies such as military intervention in Ukraine and cyber espionage in the United States, I am afraid that such major diplomatic achievements are improbable today. I think peace activists must set more modest, realistic goals for US-Russian relations.

While the two nations’ relationship is unlikely to improve significantly soon, the Biden administration can at least take some steps to prevent the relationship from deteriorating further. Such steps could lay the foundation for future diplomatic resolutions. Peace activists should lobby the Biden administration to pursue these measures while also pursuing at least one of them independently of government action.

I would identify at least four broad, important but achievable, goals that the Biden administration and peace activists should work toward in the weeks and months ahead.

Arms control. The New START Treaty, which places limits on American and Russian nuclear weapons, will expire on February 5, 2021.[2] Following the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (during George W. Bush’s administration) and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (during Donald Trump’s administration), START remains the last nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia still in effect. The Trump administration has consistently delayed renewing START.

If the START Treaty collapses, Russia and the United States will each have new opportunities to build up their nuclear weapons stockpiles, a situation that could lead to a costly and dangerous new nuclear arms race.

START can be renewed for up to five years. Biden may well plan to renew the START Treaty for at least part of that period, and the Russians would likely also agree to an extension.[3] These signs are encouraging, and the new administration should make renewing the treaty for the full five years a top priority during their first weeks in office. Peace activists should raise their voices in favor of full renewal.

Also, as Joseph Cirincione of the Quincy Institute and Yuval Weber of the Marine Corps University have each pointed out, renewing START not only can head off an arms race but might also serve as part of a larger process of the United States re-committing to other international agreements in which Russia also has an interest.[4] The Open Skies Treaty, which allowed the United States and Russia (among other nations) to fly over each other’s territory for intelligence-gathering purposes, is one such agreement.[5] Others are the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the Paris Climate Accords, both of which Biden is likely to seek to re-join.[6]

Rules for cyberspace. Nations have spied on each other from time immemorial. This has been the case with the United States and Russia and will presumably continue to be so for the foreseeable future. What is crucial is that each side expects the other side’s espionage and that at least unofficial procedures exist for responding to such espionage without dangerously escalating hostilities.

All these principles for dealing with espionage similarly apply to the comparatively new practice of one nation hacking another’s information technology systems, whether to gain information or to commit sabotage. Hacking has been a particularly charged issue in US-Russian relations, given the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence officers and the more recent hacking of US government agencies and private businesses that was also attributed to Russia.[7]

That Russia and the United States would mutually agree never to hack into each other’s institutions is too much to hope for. We can, however, hope that each side will continue to invest in its own cybersecurity to guard against future hacking and will develop appropriate practices for responding to successful hacking by the other side. The response should ideally be some measured penalty—condemnation, symbolic sanctions against offending individuals, even limited expulsion of the offending side’s officials—that signals the injured nation’s discontent with the hacking but doesn’t unduly ratchet up tensions.

The Biden administration should seek to improve US government cybersecurity and to establish procedures to govern the inevitable back-and-forth of international espionage and sabotage in cyberspace. One measure recommended by George Beebe, of the Center for the National Interest, is to invest in non-digital backups for crucial systems, such as those for power generation, vote tabulation, or weapons command and control.[8] Such backups will not only reduce the risk of cyber-sabotage but also reduce the risk of the United States responding to such sabotage in a dangerously disproportionate way. Biden and his team should reject proposals to retaliate to Russian hacking with measures that could cause serious harm to Russia or Russian interests and are likely to invite further retaliation in turn.

Routine governmental communication. While some major US-Russian diplomatic breakthrough might be far off, that is no reason for the two nations not to have regular communication. Matthew Rojansky of the Kennan Institute and Michael Kimmage of the Catholic University of America recommend promoting mid-level communication between the Russian and American governments.[9] Officials within the US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry should stay in touch with each other, as should those within the US Defense Department and Russian Defense Ministry. Routine communication ensures that each nation is better informed on what the other is doing.

This is especially important when it comes to the behavior of each nation’s military. Regular communication avoids surprises and accidents and makes military exercises or other activities less likely to be interpreted as hostile actions. Such communication also builds working relationships among government officials on both sides.

Building relationships. In addition to communication between American and Russian officials, communication among private citizens in both nations can contribute to a more stable relationship. This is another approach recommended by Rojansky and Kimmage. Building relationships among a variety of civil society organizations—artistic, professional, religious, scientific—in each nation can help foster understanding and remove negative attitudes between Americans and Russians. Some of this international cooperation at the civil society-level might have a positive influence on policy at the governmental level.

Once the Covid-19 pandemic has been brought under control, this kind of relationship building can involve visits by Americans and Russians to each other’s nations. Until then, the necessary communication can take place virtually. The Biden administration should encourage cultural exchanges of this kind, but such exchanges need not wait on government initiative. Private American and Russian organizations should pursue relationship building on their own—and peace groups should be at the forefront of such efforts.

To these relatively specific goals, I would add a broader one for peace activists to bear in mind: avoiding US-Russian conflict and promoting stable relations between these two nations must be a top priority. Peace and social justice activists should regard this cause as being as important and worthy of attention, time, and energy as preventing war between the United States and Iran, ending the war in Yemen, reducing military spending, or countering climate change. We should always be on the lookout for new ways to promote peaceful coexistence between the two nations.

Future US-Russia relations will have a crucial impact on the peace and even survival of the world. Preventing escalating hostilities between the United States and Russia is imperative. The steps I have outlined above offer a way to begin this vital work.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.

Notes

[1] See “Using Empathy during a New Cold War” and “Resolving the Ukraine Crisis: A Proposal.”

[2] Peter Coy, “Biden May Have 16 Days to Stave Off a Nuclear Arms Race,” Bloomberg Businessweek, November 25, 2020, https://bloom.bg/3dPFUpQ.

[3] John Grady, “Russian Ambassador to U.S. Sees Hope for Nuclear Arms Treaty Extension,” USNI News, December 7, 2020, https://bit.ly/3sxsEdB; Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “Fate of New START Hinges on Biden,” Arms Control Association, December 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/2PoSNx3; David E. Sanger, “The End of ‘America First’: How Biden Says He Will Re-engage With the World,” New York Times, November 9, 2020, https://nyti.ms/2NLvGfm.

[4] Joseph Cirincione, “Nuclear Weapons Are Out of Control. But Biden Can Make the World Safer,” American Prospect, December 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/3ramtfm; Yuval Weber, “Biden-Putin: The Possible Contours of a “Cold” Working Relationship,” Aspenia Online, November 24, 2020, https://bit.ly/3dWOF1k.

[5] Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “U.S. Completes Open Skies Treaty Withdrawal,” Arms Control Association, December 2020, https://bit.ly/2MCPSjc.

[6] Sanger, “The End of ‘America First.’”

[7] Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner, “12 Russian Agents Indicted in Mueller Investigation,” New York Times, July 13, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2Pca0tc; David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth, and Julian E. Barnes, “As Understanding of Russian Hacking Grows, So Does Alarm,” New York Times, January 2, 2021, https://nyti.ms/3syvezW.

[8] George Beebe, “Why America’s Cyber Strategy is Failing,” National Interest, December 24, 2020, https://bit.ly/30cPPOl.

[9] Matthew Rojansky and Michael Kimmage, “Joe Biden’s Oncoming Headache over Vladimir Putin,” CNN, November 20, 2020, https://cnn.it/3q3bvqo.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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