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Can the US and Russia Agree to Disagree?

The relationship is cold, but there are still some areas of mutual interest.

Could U.S.-Russia relations get any worse? Looking at the state of play between these two powers, it’s hard not to believe the relationship has already reached the nadir. Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are just as likely these days to taunt one another than engage in substantive conversations. The Biden administration’s April 15 decision to issue more sanctions on Moscow for its cyber-espionage and disinformation operations—and Moscow’s inevitable tit-for-tat response, which included banishing 10 U.S. diplomats from the country, could jeopardize purported discussions about a possible summit between Biden and Putin later in the year.  Russia’s ambassador to the United States hasn’t been in Washington for nearly a month. Meanwhile, the deployment of 80,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s border is renewing panic in the minds of U.S. policymakers that Moscow may be contemplating another invasion of its neighbor. 

Every U.S. president in the post-Cold War period has entered the White House thinking a dramatic reset with Russia was possible, only to come away disappointed. Yet while hopes for a major improvement in the U.S.-Russia relationship are slim at best, the two countries still have an interest in keeping ties from completely imploding. If Washington and Moscow have any chance at salvaging what is left of their engagement, both need to come to some hard conclusions about what is possible, what issues should be pushed to at a later date, and which are immune to a quick resolution.

In Washington today, it’s easy to conflate Russia’s entire foreign policy with Putin’s personal priorities. Go after Putin personally, the logic goes, and Russian foreign policy will eventually change for the better. Unfortunately, geopolitics aren’t that simple. While the authoritarian Putin brings a certain nationalist flair to the Kremlin, core Russian national interests have remained fairly consistent over the last quarter-century. Moscow remains strongly opposed to the further expansion of NATO, is highly skeptical of Western intentions, and remains extremely sensitive to the slightest hint of Western interference (real or imagined) in its own neighborhood. Even Boris Yeltsin, generically described as a pro-Western Russian politician, was often just as disgusted about U.S. foreign policy as Putin is today. The big difference was that Yeltsin was a wobbly president in charge of a wobbly country ransacked by economic malaise and criminality.  Russia’s power in the Putin era may still be undermined by a suite of socioeconomic problems, but nobody can seriously argue that the Russian state itself is on the brink of collapse or that the Russian army today is as incompetent or demoralized as it was in the mid-1990s.

Policymakers in Washington have often believed they can entice or pressure Moscow into fundamentally changing its foreign policy. Yet despite sanctioning hundreds of Russian entities for a wide range of misdeeds, expelling Russian diplomats, closing Russian consulates on U.S. soil and closing ranks with its allies in Europe, Russian foreign policy remains as frustrating to Western sensibilities as it was five or ten years ago. The notion that the West can convince Moscow to see the world the same way is about as constructive as pushing on a locked door.

If this assessment sounds bleak, that’s because geopolitics can be a bleak affair that limits the options of the most experienced diplomats and restrains the most aspirational of nations. But failing to accept reality won't make the dynamics between Russia and the West more successful either. And the reality is neither side will capitulate to the other or sacrifice its own security interests for the sake of improving the relationship. 

Fortunately, the silver lining of geopolitics is that even adversaries and competitors with large systemic differences of opinion on critical issues can still find ways of collaborating when the opportunity arises. 

The U.S and Russia are no different. There is a reason, after all, why Biden and Putin are still phoning one another. Both understand that as strained as the relationship between their two countries currently is, ties will invariably get worse if channels of communication aren’t kept open. They have cooperated on counterterrorism before and will likely continue to do so to the extent it doesn’t compromise intelligence assets and sources.

While it’s indisputable that friendship won’t be blossoming in the near or medium-term, a business-like relationship on issues of mutual interest is not totally foreclosed.

In Afghanistan, U.S. and Russian diplomats are largely working toward the same objective: the establishment of an intra-Afghan peace agreement which, ideally, will stabilize a country that has seen nothing but war over the past four decades. 

And on issues like arms control and military transparency, Washington and Moscow have an incentive and indeed a responsibility to explore what is possible. The U.S. and Russia remain the two largest nuclear weapons powers, with over 90 percent of the world’s total nuclear arsenal between them. The decision to extend the New START accord on deployed nuclear warheads and launchers was a positive move in the right direction and should be followed up by additional discussions on resuscitating a strategic stability regime at risk of dying a slow but painful death. 

If Biden and Putin are looking for a comprehensive reset of the U.S.-Russia relationship, they will set themselves up for failure. Conflict management and selective cooperation is good enough—and just as important, better than the alternative.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.