Expanding the Scope for Statecraft in U.S. Russia Policy

Published in: War on the Rocks website (2021)

Posted on RAND.org on May 18, 2021

by Samuel Charap

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The Biden administration has its sights set on a June summit with Russia. Given the new lows plowed in the bilateral relationship—so low that both countries' ambassadors have returned home for consultations—talks at the presidential level are an important channel of communication. While the summit is unlikely to yield a fiasco like the infamous Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, it is also not likely to change the downward trajectory of the relationship, even if the administration's proposal to start arms control and strategic stability talks succeeds.

The Biden administration's narrow agenda for the summit is reflective of the state of the relationship, but it also stems from the fundamental continuities in U.S. Russia strategy since Moscow's annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. That strategy is extremely pessimistic about what negotiations can achieve with Russia today, and unduly optimistic that America's problems with Russia may be easier to solve in the future. Instead of tinkering with the existing approach, the Biden administration should attempt to pursue negotiated outcomes with Moscow on a range of interests and conflicts, beyond just arms control and strategic stability talks. In order to better stabilize the relationship, the administration should take the opportunity in the run-up to the summit to revisit core assumptions, and expand the scope for statecraft in U.S. Russia policy.

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