by Janusz Bugajski
May 23, 2021
Despite his oft-stated resolve to repel Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western campaign, President Joe Biden is in danger of being hoodwinked by the Kremlin.
This “Putinization” process has been evident in the early days of each U.S. administration and is based on three misplaced virtues — faith, hope, and charity.
Namely, the faith that American and Russian interests are compatible; the hope that summits and agreements will bring durable cooperation; and the conviction that charitable concessions will satiate the Kremlin’s appetite.
Two recent decisions by the Biden administration indicate that the pattern of previous administrations may be repeated. The planned Biden-Putin summit in June will give Putin fresh legitimacy as a global statesman rather than distancing him as an expansionist dictator. It seems that the more Putin threatens Russia’s neighbors with war, as is the case with Ukraine, the more eager Washington becomes for summits to avert wider conflict. But such responses simply embolden the Kremlin. A summit will again raise hopes that durable agreements can be forged with Moscow in such arenas as arms control or climate change and lull the West into a false sense of security until the next Kremlin assault.
Second, White House unwillingness to stop the construction of the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline to Europe. Biden proved as much when, this week, he exempted the Russian company overseeing the project from sanctions. His action may appease German business interests, but it will also estrange allies along NATO’s eastern flank. They rightly view the NS2 as Moscow’s attempt to strangle Ukraine by eliminating its energy transit revenues. Although U.S. officials are negotiating with Berlin on ways to protect Ukraine’s energy security and compensate for impending budgetary shortfalls, any deals involving the Kremlin should not be accepted at face value.
Regardless of which administration is in the White House, U.S.-Russia relations are fundamentally adversarial. Instead of assuming that current disputes are the result of specific policy decisions that can be rectified, American officials need to dissect the root causes of conflict. Washington and Moscow will be global rivals as long as Russia remains an autocratic neo-imperial power seeking to dominate its neighbors and undermine America’s alliances. Three core incompatibilities lie at the root of this rivalry: identity, system, and interests.
American identity is based on inclusive nonethnic citizenship, in which civic status transcends ethnic, national, regional, religious, linguistic, and class differences. It is successful in integrating all nationalities because it is not constructed around a single dominant ethnic category. Russia’s identity is grounded in the predominance of the
Russian ethnos, founded upon Tsarist and Soviet imperial conquests. The “russification” process generates resentment among diverse national and regional groups both inside and outside Russia. Putin’s “Russian world” crusade is the most recent illustration of this expansionist, assimilation campaign.
In the political domain, American and Russian systems and ideologies are incompatible. The United States is a democratic federation with significant autonomy among all 50 states. Elections are free contests, power is separated between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and each state has a voice in Washington. Russia is federal in name only. In practice, it is a centralized state in which elections are rigged, political opposition is banned or repressed, institutions are controlled by Putin loyalists, and local governors are appointed and supervised by the Kremlin.
The key reason for the U.S.-Russia conflict is antithetical international interests. While both states have “spheres of influence,” the distinctions between them are stark. Washington respects the right of each country to choose its alliances, while Kremlin officials seek to impose security arrangements on their neighbors. Countries enter NATO voluntarily because membership reinforces their national security and political sovereignty. States are induced into Russia’s orbit as a result of pressure and threat. The Kremlin also capitalizes on disputes between Washington and other powers such as China to weaken American influence. The notion that Washington can entice Putin through summits and concessions to help push back against Beijing is a strategic illusion.
U.S. policy should not be based on the forlorn hope of partnership with Russia. Strategy needs to be rooted in reality, in which Western vulnerabilities are rectified and Moscow’s anti-American actions are combated. If a U.S. ally or partner is subverted or attacked, then Washington must bolster their security, including in the energy domain. And if America’s democracy or critical infrastructure are attacked by the Kremlin or its proxies, then policies must be pursued to limit future offensives by targeting Russia’s domestic and international fragilities. Faith, hope, and charity have no place in confronting a predatory power.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His next book is titled Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.