Joe Biden Confronts Russia: The Problem of Diplomacy Without Compromise

One of the unequivocal losers in the election of Joe Biden as president would appear to be Russia. Although President Donald Trump offered Moscow little more than rhetoric, while acquiescing to a succession of congressional and bureaucratic attacks, chances of conflict little increased.

In contrast, Biden appears seriously deluded about the potential threat and determined to create a dangerous confrontation. When candidate Biden was interviewed by 60 Minutes, he minimized the problem of China while insisting that "the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our – our security and our alliances is Russia."

This suggests that he is ignorant, dumb, enfeebled, or perhaps all three. The claim makes no sense. On almost every measure Beijing is the more threatening power. Moscow poses a risk to America in only one sense – it possesses an equivalent nuclear force capable of destroying the U.S. However, doing so would ensure its own destruction. Even the loony Republican Party hawks, of which there are many, appear to recognize that deterrence works.

Of course, Russia is not a friend of Washington. Authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad, it often operates against US principles and interests. However, Vladimir Putin did not begin his presidency hostile to America. Rather, he picked up that sentiment in response to Washington’s behavior over the years.

To start, despite American claims to be pure as the driven snow, in practice the US is among the most hypocritical and sanctimonious of powers. For instance, the Trump administration has been an enthusiastic friend of autocrats around the globe, and particularly in the Middle East: the president’s embrace of terrible regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Turkey was as ostentatious as it was tight. Washington treats even China, which is retreating to Maoist style totalitarianism, with greater warmth than Russia.

Worse, the invasion of Iraq was an act of brutal aggression that violated international law and created hideous humanitarian consequences, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and displacing millions more. US support for the Saudi and Emirati invasion of Yemen created what today is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The consequences of America’s Iraq misadventure certainly are worse than anything done by modern Russia and probably are worse than any Soviet military action since World War II, including Afghanistan and Hungary. The impact of the Yemen invasion has resulted in more human harm than Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. Given the consequences of their policies, American officials would have more credibility if they avoided the sanctimonious preening to which they are prone.

Nevertheless, Moscow has behaved badly toward George and Ukraine. The lack of moral and legal justification does not mean Russia’s behavior was unreasonable, however. Imagine if Moscow had lied to America about taking the Warsaw Pact to South America and then moved the alliance steadily north toward the US border. Russia had attacked and dismembered Honduras, one of Washington’s historic friends, and attempted to foreclose any American involvement in the resulting settlement. Then Moscow had urged Mexico to shift its commerce from the US southward, backed a street putsch against the elected, pro-American president, helped install a friendly regime, and offered to bring Mexico into the Warsaw Pact.

American policymakers would go batshit crazy. Members of Congress would campaigning for war, ivory tower warriors would fill the airwaves with demands for action, and the administration would breath fire against Moscow. That might not be the way it should be, but few Americans would spend a lot of time worrying about truth, justice, fairness, morality, or democracy at that moment. Everything would be focused on stopping the Russians.

The Putin government has aided Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a loathsome autocrat but no worse, if the truth be told, than many dictators supported by America, as well as some of the jihadist insurgent groups backed, both directly and indirectly, by the US against the Assad government. And Washington’s professed shock at the role of Moscow, a Syrian ally since the 1950s, can best be answered by asking why the US is involved so far from home in a nation in which historically it had no serious connection and in which today it has no recognizable security interests?

Russia has aided awful regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, mostly, it would seem, as payback for Washington’s hostile policy toward Moscow elsewhere. US officials, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, complained about this outrageous violation of the Monroe Doctrine while insisting that America does not recognize spheres of interest elsewhere, especially when it comes to Russia. Lack of consistency seems to be a consistent aspect US policy toward Moscow.

The Russophobes who dominate US policy played up the discredited claim that Moscow paid bounties for the killing of US personnel in Afghanistan, without noting the equivalent impact of providing Stinger missiles to Afghan guerrillas and Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine’s military. The only purpose of the latter actions was to kill Russian personnel and ethnic Russian allies. Yet Washington supported these policies as obviously necessary, indeed, a policy to be celebrated.

For all the Sturm und Drang resulting from US policy toward Moscow, it is amazing how small is the threat posed by Russia. There is no ideological competition. There are no territorial disputes. And there are no significant differences in vital interests. Russia has shown not the slightest interest in conflict, which would be disastrous for Moscow.

Washington’s perpetual and fevered concern over Europe reflects allied fecklessness, nothing more. The continent enjoys roughly 11 times the economic strength, four times the military outlays, and three times the population of Russia. Some 75 years after World War II, isn’t it time for Europeans to defend themselves?

Indeed, no one there seriously imagines a Russian effort to swallow Europe, which is why residents do not do more to protect themselves. Moreover, despite the endless wailing and gnashing of teeth about the supposed Russian threat, few really believe Putin is poised to attack even the continent’s eastern members. Doing so would gain little other than a ravaged landscape, while ensuring enduring European enmity, bitter economic war, and probably a full-scale military response. If the eastern-most NATO members are worried, they should increase their defense outlays, devoting more than a couple pennies on the dollar to maintaining their freedom. Of course, they don’t do more since they figure America will ride to their rescue in any crisis.

Georgia and Ukraine are unfortunately stuck in a tough neighborhood, but they matter not for American or European security. Both spent hundreds of years as part of the Russian Empire and then Soviet Union. Moscow views them as uniquely sensitive security issues. And the likelihood of any Russian government, whether headed by an opposition figure or Putin acolyte, giving back Crimea is zero. American defense commitments, treaties, and deployments should be a matter of American security, not foreign charity.

This suggests the opportunity for negotiations and an improved relationship. Which would serve US and European interests.

Washington’s current policy of systematic hostility, ensures a bad relationship with and even risks war with a major power. At least twice American policymakers considered military action against Moscow post-Cold War.

The George W. Bush administration debated attacking Russian forces moving into Georgia in 2008; during the 2016 campaign several Republican Party presidential candidates advocated imposing a no fly zone over Syria and applying it to Russia. Both ideas could be categorized as frankly insane, products of wildly hubristic but mentally deficient policymakers, unconcerned about consequences. Such steps would have forced Moscow to retaliate, which would have risked full-scale war over minimal geopolitical stakes.

However, current policy, under which no sanctions are to be removed without Moscow’s surrender on every international issue of interest to America, including return of Crimea, ensures that current hostilities will endure and nothing ever will change. That creates a continuing possibility of a serious military confrontation with a nuclear power. To maintain a permanent state of hostility with such an important nation which poses no significant threat to US interests or security is policy malpractice of the grossest kind.

Moreover, Moscow is a regional power with enhanced reach – its nukes cover the globe and its conventional forces can influence the Middle East – that could aid American objectives. Russia played a positive role in negotiating a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow could join with other nations to help stabilize Afghanistan after an American withdrawal. The Putin government could work with the US and Europe in pressing for regional settlements involving Iran and Syria, as well as North Korea. Moscow could simply stay out of Latin American squabbles. All of these steps would be to America’s advantage. However, Washington cannot expect such forbearance if it offers only hostility and punishment in return.

Equally important, Western policy has driven Russia toward China. Thus, the US has inadvertently united the world’s rising economic power with a large economy and growing military capability with the world’s legacy nuclear giant with a significant conventional capability. Both benefit from cooperating to limit the influence of the hostile, arrogant, aggressive, and swaggering would-be unipower which constantly and noisily demands the obeisance of others.

Although Moscow is unlikely to join an anti-China coalition, it need not make common cause against the US and Europe. Indeed, Russia traditionally has identified more with the West, as a Christian and European power. Moreover, Moscow fears absorption of its underpopulated Siberian lands by Beijing and China’s growing economic influence in Central Asia. Russia is slowly being relegated to junior status by its new partner and resents past Chinese behavior, such as reverse engineering of Russian military technology. Improving US and European relations with Moscow would at least reduce its incentive to make common cause with Beijing.

All of these factors argue for the US improving its relationship with Russia.

Yet Washington has acquired a significant case of Russophobia. Democrats, traditionally softer toward the Soviet Union, led the Moscow hate-fest in order to hurt Trump by blaming Hillary Clinton’s defeat on Russian intervention in the 2016 election. Republicans, their aggressive instincts frustrated by the disastrous consequences of their discreditable Mideast policies, sought another enemy against which to organize. Unsurprisingly, this self-servicing yet bipartisan approach has hurt America.

Waiting for a new government in Moscow is no answer. Despite attempts to demonize Vladimir Putin, he is no Hitler. After 20 years in power his geographic conquests have been minimal, and there is nothing more in the offing. A nationalist rather than communist, he is no worse and perhaps better than whoever might replace him. Russian liberals remain an evanescent force. Alexei Navalny has been celebrated in the West but looks to be more Russian nationalist than Western globalist; his disagreement with Putin may be more over who should rule than how Russia should be ruled. US and Europeans who imagine a springtime relationship if he took power might be shocked by the result.

Indeed, even a democratic government would be unlikely to yield Crimea absent defeat in a general war. The area long was part of Russia and contains the important military base of Sevastopol. The Crimean people probably prefer remaining in Russia than in returning to Ukraine. Indeed, the West betrays its own principles if it simply treats Crimeans as chattel to be transferred without their consent. Surely they should be consulted – actually, allowed to vote in a genuinely free referendum – on their future and their wishes should be followed. Despite their earlier illegal shift to Russia, they are not Kiev’s property any more than Moscow’s property.

Unfortunately, the Washington policy community supports only the pretense of negotiation with Russia, with submission, essentially de facto surrender, the preordained result. For instance, the authors of a recent Atlantic Council study on policy toward Russia opposed the slightest relaxation in US and Western demands. In webinar on the issue former ambassador Daniel Fried cheerfully declared: "It’s not so much asking them to concede. … The road to a better relationship with Moscow begins with their pullback out of Ukraine. They have to make a deal that gets them out of the Donbass and restores the eastern Ukrainian border. And no, we’re not going to allow them to keep Crimea. They have to back off. Nobody asked them to invade Ukraine. They did that all on their own."

Similarly, in a back-and-forth between groups of scholars on Russia policy in Politico, the intransigent 33, who saw capitulation as Moscow’s only reasonable option, declared: "The [pro-engagement] authors also argue for a more flexible, targeted sanctions regime that can be eased ‘quickly in exchange for Russian steps that advance negotiations toward acceptable resolutions of outstanding conflicts.’ But what are ‘acceptable resolutions’ to outstanding conflicts? Ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia? Consigning Crimea to Russian control? Ignoring the ugly human rights situation inside Russia? Any "rethink" involving such tradeoffs is not worth pursuing."

Yet what vital American national interest compels defending Georgia and Ukraine? What makes it worth confronting a nuclear-armed power to defend two nations of no security interest which have been badly governed and now are tripwires to war?

Who imagines that any Russian government will yield Crimea? Should one permanently wreck a relationship with a great power over an unsolvable issue which could be set aside to make progress elsewhere? How can countries which demand that Serbia reconcile itself to their illegal detachment of Kosovo insist that they will never accept Ukraine’s loss of Crimea?

What Western government does not routinely ignore "ugly human rights" situations in many governments when it suits their interests – such as encouraging the purchase of high-price weapons? Has anyone heard of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, China, Vietnam, Egypt, and several Central Asian nations? Indeed, was it not America and the Western allies which allied with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in World War II because doing so suited their interest?

How is remaining intransigent on such issues worth a new Cold War, with Russia and China aligned? Worse, how is doing so worth risking conflict and war in coming years?

Dealing with Russia requires strategic empathy. Imagine how Americans would have reacted under similar circumstances. Had another nation expanded a historically hostile alliance to their borders, encircled their country with bases and forces, asserted the right to bomb, invade, and occupy their allies, promiscuously sanctioned and attacked other nations whenever and for whatever reason it chose, and claimed its most frivolous interests to be always and everywhere vital. And then insisting that accepting its every policy, dictate, demand, and determination, with no compromise or compensation, was the only way for Washington to improve relations.

Such a position might satisfy those who imagine Uncle Sam to be the international equivalent of a Vestal Virgin, anointed from on high to maintain the world’s moral purity. But it is a remarkably stupid position to take for a bankrupt republic that is expected to defend virtually every prosperous and populous Asian, European and Middle Eastern state, spend years and even decades remaking failed states around the globe, and confront a rising great power.

A group of 103 foreign policy scholars recently wrote in Politico calling for a serious conversation with Russia seeking a better relationship. They advocated "a balanced commitment to deterrence and détente. Thus, while maintaining our defense, we should also engage Russia in a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries."

Imagine a US offer to end NATO expansion, which has needlessly expanded American military liabilities more than resources. In return Russia would leave the Donbass while Ukraine implemented the Minsk Protocol and extended greater autonomy to the region. On Crimea the US and Europe refused to recognize Russia’s annexation but limited sanctions to the contested territory, while offering to settle the issue with a free and fair international referendum.

Moscow agreed to stay out of Cuba and Venezuela; the US left behind Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which previously had identities separate from Georgia. Moscow agreed to work more closely with the US on Iran and North Korea if Washington left Syria, in which America has no interest worth involvement in a civil war. NATO and Russia sought to improve communication and reduce border incidents. Both Washington and Moscow abjured political interference, something which the US especially has been guilty of around the world for decades.

Seeking a better relationship with Moscow does not mean ignoring that regime’s authoritarian nature or divergent aims. However, waging a Cold War II is foolish, needless, and dangerous. Noted another group of policymakers who last fall advocated a rethink in relations: "We must avoid the risk of inadvertent nuclear war, achieve the responsible use of both space and cyberspace, enhance European security by diminishing the chance of military conflict, manage China’s rise, and take steps to address the destabilizing effects of climate change."

Unfortunately, Joe Biden and those he is bringing into his administration appear to be committed Russophobes. Yet history gives hope. Richard Nixon, who won election as a determined anti-communist, went to Beijing and made a deal with Mao Zedong. With Democrats having dropped Russia as their international boogeyman, Biden could be the American politician to reach a modus vivendi with Moscow, bringing Russia in from the cold.

Indeed, if Biden hopes to prevent a Russia-China alliance, Biden would best reconcile with Moscow. One enemy at a time is a good strategy for anyone at anytime, especially the US as it faces massive economic and debt problems as well as imperial overstretch. Washington should make a deal with Moscow, foreclosing a renewed Cold War and enabling cooperation on issues of mutual interest.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.