Setting Up a Summit for Failure

If the U.S. and Russia only reached agreements when there were no major quarrels, there would be no need to negotiate anything.

Kurt Volker bluntly admits that he hopes that the Geneva summit between Biden and Putin produces more hostility and confrontation:

For the U.S., therefore, the best possible outcome is not one of modest agreements and a commitment to “predictability,” but one of a lack of agreements altogether. Success is confrontation.

There can be no accommodation unless and until Russian aggression ends and it returns to the rules-based order. Indeed, an ideal scenario would have the U.S. Administration announce tough, new sanctions against Russia and its enablers in Western Europe in advance of the Geneva Summit – sanctions which could be lifted at a moment’s notice if Russian behavior actually changes.

There is something refreshing about Russia hawks flatly admitting that they hate engagement and want more antagonism, but as advice for the administration it is terrible. If Biden comes away from Geneva with nothing but more acrimony, hawks will be able to attack him for going to a pointless meeting, mock him for his diplomatic incompetence, and still deride him as an appeaser because he went. Biden needs to be able to show that a summit with Putin isn’t just another photo-op summit like Trump’s meetings with Kim Jong-un. At the very least, there needs to be some groundwork laid for future arms control negotiations. Biden’s decision not to rejoin Open Skies doesn’t help his cause.

Volker’s position is absurd. There can be no accommodation “until Russian aggression ends and it returns to the rules-based order”? That amounts to saying that there should be no diplomatic agreements made with Russia for the rest of the century. Russia isn’t likely to return Crimea anytime soon, so if that is the standard that you want to use you are saying that all U.S.-Russian cooperation from now on is impossible. Volker has his own reasons to want to stoke U.S.-Russian hostility, and if Biden listened to him the U.S. and Russia might as well break off normal relations and grimace at each other from a distance.

Michael McFaul, previously U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, offers a similarly dreary view:

None of these agenda items will be on the table in Geneva. Putin’s recent belligerent behavior abroad and growing repression at home make such cooperation impossible. Judging by his actions, Putin does not want a stable, predictable or normal relationship with Washington. He needs the United States as an enemy.

McFaul did important work in the Obama administration on the “reset” policy that actually achieved some modest successes, so it is unfortunate that over the last decade he has become a predictable opponent of constructive engagement most of the time. He says that significant cooperation with Putin is now “impossible” because of the Russian government’s recent behavior, but the same argument could have been and was made against Obama’s policy and it was just as misguided then as it is now. The Obama-era “reset” began less than a year after the August 2008 war, and the Kremlin was hardly friendly to dissidents and critics in those years. The case for the “reset” was that the U.S. and Russia could and should work together on shared interests despite very serious disagreements on other issues. It is when other major powers are acting in ways that you don’t like that engagement is most important. If the U.S. and Russia only reached agreements when there were no major quarrels, there would be no need to negotiate anything.

McFaul’s claim that Putin “needs” the U.S. as an enemy is overstated. It is fair to say that Putin has concluded that U.S. hostility to him and to Russia is implacable given the endless sanctions that have been imposed over the last decade, but there were periods earlier in the century when he showed a willingness to strike bargains with Washington. When the U.S. has demonstrated a willingness to compromise, he has been prepared to cooperate up to a point. If the Russian government thought that sanctions relief was remotely possible, it might be more flexible in some areas. Because Congress and hawks in Washington have basically made sanctions relief the new third rail of politics, we won’t be able to test that proposition.

Volker’s “ideal scenario” where the U.S. slaps more sanctions on Russia at the summit is all the proof you could want that sanctions advocates are not interested in achieving any policy goals. What purpose could be served by provoking and antagonizing the Russian government like that? What concessions do you think you’re likely to get? The funniest part is the assertion that “sanctions could be lifted at a moment’s notice.” Based on our government’s performance over the last few decades, the Russians could be forgiven for assuming that U.S. sanctions are never lifted quickly if they are lifted at all. Sanctions are not a very effective tool, but in recent years they have been used as nothing more than a bludgeon. Lifting sanctions is politically toxic, and there is always a new excuse for piling on more. Even if Russia did everything Washington wanted on five issues, the sanctions imposed because of a sixth would deny them the relief they seek. There are too many sanctions imposed for too many different reasons, and there are too many obstacles to sanctions relief to make U.S. promises on this front credible. Adding on even more would just confirm that the U.S. never intends to lift any sanctions no matter what Russia does. The Russian government has already received that message loud and clear.

When you sanction almost everything that another state does, it is no surprise that the targeted state sees no point in cooperating. If the U.S. were to take a different approach to Russia and look for incentives that it might offer to encourage cooperation, it might find a much more accommodating partner in negotiations. If Biden opts for the bog-standard of sanctions and pious rhetoric about the “rules-based order,” he can expect his Russia policy to achieve nothing positive of consequence.