Biden and Putin at a Crossroads

By David K. Shipler

If President Biden were to act on all the competing (and unsolicited) advice that he’s getting about how to handle Vladimir Putin when they meet tomorrow in Geneva, here’s how it would go: Threaten to harden sanctions, promise to relax them. Threaten to invite Ukraine into NATO, promise not to. Brandish cyber weaponry against Russian infrastructure, propose a cyber treaty against hacking and ransomware. Trumpet outrage over Russia’s rights abuses, make the points quietly and create a working group of mid-level officials for private discussions. Rattle the nuclear saber, seek new arms control. Compete in the Arctic, cooperate in the Arctic. And so on.

It is crucial to get this right, not only to reduce the risk of nuclear miscalculation but also to forestall a dangerous new alignment between Russia and China. A Russian-Chinese rapprochement has been discussed for more than two decades. “If the West Continues the Expansion, Moscow Will Drive East,” was the headline of a 1997 piece by Alexei Arbatov, head of the International Security Center at Russia’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations. It’s not a prospect that has delighted Arbatov. “We currently have wonderful relations,” he said a year ago, “but Russia needs to keep its distance. We cannot go back and forth between extremes, from China being the world’s greatest threat to it being our strategic ally or partner.”

A couple of old jokes from Soviet days underscore the issue. One quotes a headline from fifty years in the future: “All Quiet on the Finnish-Chinese border.”

Another is one that Biden could update at his summit.

Putin: Joe, I had a dream last night that Washington was all in red. The White House was red, the Capitol was red, there were red banners everywhere.

Biden: What a coincidence, Vladimir! I had a dream last night that Moscow was all in red. The Kremlin walls were red, there were red stars on the towers, there were red banners across the streets.

Putin: What’s so strange about that? What did the banners say?

Biden: I don’t know. I can’t read Chinese.

Putin has surely heard this joke, so if he has even a shred of self-deprecating humor, he’d probably steal the punch line before Biden could get it out.

Whatever. That’s my advice for how to begin their meeting. Then, Biden needs both a mailed fist and a velvet glove, as all U.S. presidents have in dealing with Russia, both before and since the Soviet Union disintegrated. That is because — contrary to popular misconceptions in Washington — Russia is not a monolith. Its history and cross-currents of concerns make it as complicated as the United States. There are many Russias: Russia the bully and Russia the neurotic, Russia the opponent and Russia the ally (remember World War II). There is Russia the bold, and there is Russia the scared, the Russia that can wipe out the world with ICBMs and the Russia that trembles at the prospect of a mildly unfriendly government on any of its borders.

Therefore, no single-minded approach will do. Fawning over Putin, in the peculiar habit of Donald Trump, emboldened the Russian leader even as relations with the U.S. plummeted. At the opposite extreme, sticking a finger in Putin’s eye without compensatory offerings of benefit won’t work, either. Enormous issues of common ground exist between the two superpowers, and they need tough, practical exploration, which Biden seems prepared to try: climate change, cyberwarfare, terrorism, the pandemic, the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran, the protection of the Arctic and other pristine regions of the world, and on.

Empathy and dignity — feel-good terms rarely heard in hard-nosed foreign policy circles­­ — are central to success. Empathy for Russia’s viewpoint is key to intelligent decision-making — not to excuse malicious behavior but to explain it. Respecting dignity is also crucial — not by capitulating but by avoiding deeds and declarations designed to humiliate. (It didn’t help for Biden to agree when asked if he thought Putin was a “killer.”)

Within limits, the United States can adjust its own behavior to minimize adverse reactions from Moscow. And Moscow could obviously do the same with respect to the United States, where Putin has achieved a villainous specter. Both sides are sharpshooters at hitting each other’s nerves. Let’s see how accurately than can assess each other’s worries.

For example, given Russia’s historic fear of hostile encirclement, nobody should be surprised that Moscow is alarmed when NATO expands to Russia’s western frontier. After the Cold War, the western military alliance incorporated the former Soviet satellites of Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (which by then had divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic), plus Albania and the new countries of the former Yugoslavia. In other words, Russia’s formerly communist Eastern European borderlands allied themselves militarily with the United States.

In 2004, even three former Soviet republics joined NATO: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. If that hadn’t galvanized Russia’s anxiety, it would have been as strange as if Washington had sat back while Russia formed a military alliance with the new countries of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

In addition, given Russia’s deep sense of inferiority vis a vis the U.S. and Western Europe, let’s not be amazed by Putin’s macho reaction to Western disparagement. And given Russia’s traditional aversion to political pluralism as chaotic and weak, let’s be indignant but not shocked by Moscow’s attempts to sow disorder in U.S. democracy by posing online as Americans to exacerbate polarization. Discrediting democracy is a useful tactic by Putin at home to play to his own society’s affection for authority and order.

Then, too, let’s acknowledge reluctantly that Russia is not going to allow Ukraine, whose very name derives from the Russian word for “border,” to join the anti-Russian western military alliance. It would be nice if Ukrainians were allowed to make their own decisions about this, but if they are treated as pawns in a great power competition, they will lose badly, and so will the United States. Imagine if China and Russia coordinated, with China moving on Taiwan as Russia moved on Ukraine.

Would a balanced posture of neutrality by Ukraine, of economic ties with both Russia and Western Europe, make Putin relax? Perhaps, but Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, seems to be on Putin’s wish list for reconstructing the Soviet empire. He’s not going to let it go into Western hands if he can help it. And he can help it. If Washington didn’t get the message after Russia seized part of Ukraine outright — Crimea — and then dispatched thinly disguised troops to wage warfare in eastern Ukraine, then obliviousness has become the new pandemic among American policymakers.

Biden needs a clear order of priorities. Geographical competition with Russia in its own back yard should not be one of them. Tilling all that common ground should be. And maybe Biden, with his winning smile and charming wink, can bid adieu to Putin by saying, “I can’t read Chinese.”

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.