U.S.-Russia Relations Beyond the Ukraine Crisis

As Russia’s military attack on Ukraine continues into its second month, so does the torrent of abuse directed by President Biden against President Putin of Russia.

Not content with labelling Putin as “war criminal,” Biden has publicly escalated his rhetorical offensive by suggesting that not only is the Russian leader a “murderous dictator,” but also a “butcher.” A “killer” too, for good measure.

Biden’s frustrations against Putin finally boiled over whilst ending his visit to Europe at the end of March. “For God’s sake,” Biden blurted out, “this man cannot remain in power.”

It is not easy to recall such public insults by an American president against the leaders of America’s great power rivals. President Nixon clinked glasses in Beijing with Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong knowing full well that his aging Chinese host was the twentieth century’s greatest mass murderer. Nixon’s aim was firmly fixed on advancing America’s national interests, which was to forge a geopolitical realignment with China to contain Soviet Russia.

President Roosevelt and Truman each had established a common cause with “Uncle Joe” Stalin, one of the century’s mass killers, to secure a common victory against Nazi Germany in World War II.

A short time after the Red Army ruthlessly crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was invited and publicly feted in America by President Eisenhower. The honor accorded to Khrushchev was unprecedented, which helped to cool down East-West tensions for a while.

Given such instances of realpolitik with which U.S. presidents have dealt with leaders of America’s great power rivals, Biden’s verbal first strikes against Putin are an anomaly. His outrage against Russia for attacking Ukraine appears genuine, even if selective and self-serving.

Or perhaps Biden is driven by the febrile anti-Russian hysteria now widely prevalent in U.S. domestic politics and in mainstream media, which compounds his long-standing inability to grasp foreign policy and world affairs.

Yet whatever the sources of Biden’s conduct, he has ventured perilously close to the precipice in America’s relations with Russia. Consider: between the rounds of Biden’s verbal volleys against Putin, the Russian foreign ministry issued a harsh and unprecedented warning that Russian-American relations were on the “verge of breaking,” a threat which elicited simply a shrug from the U.S. State Department.

But far worse, since Putin placed his nuclear forces on combat alert in February, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov have both declined to take military-to-military calls from their Pentagon counterparts Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley.

This unprecedented breakdown in top-level crisis management between the White House and the Kremlin should ring alarm bells. An outright break in diplomatic relations, or an accidental U.S.-Russian military encounter anywhere resulting in fatalities, could very quickly or unintentionally spiral into a larger clash with unforeseen consequences for both sides.

The imperative is for cooler heads to prevail in both Moscow and Washington. As first step, Biden should cease his senseless baiting of the Russian president with schoolyard taunts. After all, short of a direct U.S. intervention in Ukraine – wisely ruled out by Washington – it is Putin who currently holds all the cards to bring about a military ceasefire and an end to death and destruction there.

But beyond Ukraine, there are larger stakes in America’s Russia policy. First and foremost, the Biden administration could do well to re-establish a modicum of civility in America’s relations with Russia. Russia, after all, is a nuclear equal with an ability to kill tens of millions of Americans and Europeans in a matter of literally few hours. That fact alone imposes a necessity for diplomatic prudence in dealing with Moscow.

President Kennedy quickly grasped this reality during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962: “Do you realize that if I make a mistake in this crisis 200 million people are going to get killed?” He said to his press secretary Pierre Salinger.

Sooner or later, the Ukraine crisis will abate. And, despite Biden, business as usual in America’s Russia policy – as improbable as it seems now — will eventually need to return. The agenda will be full: picking up the geopolitical debris from the Ukraine war, rehabilitating Russia to its rightful place in the European balance of power, and resuming strategic nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia.

None of these will be easy to agree upon or resolve given the current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. Biden, lacking Kennedy’s intuitive grasp of diplomatic nuance and accommodation, and consumed by a visceral antipathy towards Putin, assures that.

Yet the challenge in the months ahead for the Biden administration will be to supply a concept of foreign policy that not only aims for a new détente with Russia along the lines of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in the seventies, but, above all, lessens the chances of a confrontation between the two sides which would lead to an unspeakable global disaster.

[Photo by Gage Skidmore]

The views and op inions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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