Summit a Chance to Clarify U.S.-Russia Relations: RAND Call With Experts

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(The RAND Blog)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual end-of-year news conference, held online in a video conference mode, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 17, 2020, photo by Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, December 17, 2020

Photo by Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters

June 10, 2021

Next week's summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be a chance to rebuild and review the countries' fraught relationship, RAND experts Samuel Charap, Todd Helmus, Dara Massicot, and William Courtney said on a media call.

“Communication has become pretty dysfunctional at all levels in U.S.-Russia relations, including at the very top, and I don't think that serves anyone's purposes,” Charap said. “The fact that we haven't had regular dialogue is a problem, and this could open up the space for more contact.”

That will be difficult given the litany of contentious issues before the countries, with Biden likely to address election interference and disinformation, arms control and strategic stability, Russia's military posturing, and the closures of diplomatic facilities, the experts said.

A tangible takeaway from the summit could be to kickstart discussions around a new arms control and strategic stability agreement, Charap said. The current agreement expires in 2026, but greenlighting talks for a new deal now would be important given that it will take years to hammer out details of a new agreement, including provisions for nuclear weapons.

Biden and Putin will likely have tense conversations around election interference, vaccine disinformation, and cybersecurity.

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The leaders will also likely have tense conversations around election interference, vaccine disinformation, and cybersecurity. The United States has imposed sanctions for both election interference and the Solar Winds attack, but it remains to be seen how Biden plans to address this issue directly with Putin.

“The challenge is how to push back when Russia goes beyond a red line,” said Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist. He said Biden could pursue some form of carrot-and-stick approach, with real consequences for noncompliance.

Defense topics may well take center stage, given recent moves by Russia to shift troops to the Ukrainian border and along NATO borders. NATO allies will likely expect Biden to seek additional clarification on these actions as well as look to him to lay diplomatic groundwork for the future military activities, according to Massicot.

“We have some hints that Russia is going to be revising its national security strategy in the near term,” Massicot said. “They've already submitted a new draft to the Kremlin. Russia will begin pushing back more forcefully against attempts to further injure its economy with sanctions or intimidate it with military assets, whether that's the United States or NATO collectively.”

Other topics important to NATO allies may also arise, including support of the opposition in Belarus, the recent Ryanair incident, and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny—whose political movement Russia just this week provocatively designated an “extremist network.”

But Biden will likely look for the United States to play a supporting role in these matters and let Europe take the lead, said Courtney, adjunct senior fellow at RAND and a former U.S. ambassador and diplomat whose postings included Moscow.

Diplomatic concerns will likely be on the summit docket, including facility closures and Russian intelligence operatives' disregard of norms abroad. Russia is pushing back on the closure of several of its consulates and vacation estates in the United States. Putin will likely make this an issue. But the United States may not see a need to restore most U.S. consulates in Russia, and Congress may oppose reinstating Russian facilities in the United States, which were viewed as used for intelligence purposes, Courtney said.

A series of apparent microwave-weapon attacks on U.S. diplomats and intelligence staff may be broached. While intelligence matters generally are left for intelligence officials to sort out, the level of these attacks needs to be addressed even as ambiguity over them remains, Massicot said.

“It can't be denied that [U.S. government staffers] are suffering from something that's going on in multiple parts of the world, multiple embassies,” she said. “This is a norm-breaking event that needs to be specifically called out. This is unacceptable and it should not happen again.”

The experts agreed that Biden's goal of achieving a stable and predictable relationship with Russia isn't a lofty one—but the president's emphasis on human rights suggests that he also has more ambitious objectives as well.

They also expressed hope that this summit might be more productive than others given the experience level both leaders bring to the table.

“I'm hoping they can cut to the chase quickly and get down to some of these complex issues,” Massicot said.

Leah Polk and Jeffrey Hiday