Biden’s first phone call with Putin appears to have applied the first two principles above.
Building a cooperative relationship and perhaps even a partnership involves important nuances. We are strong believers in and advocates for democracy and an open society; and our policy towards Russia should feature increased outreach to the Russian people, including cultural and student exchange programs. But a largely cooperative relationship with Moscow does not require a change in the current authoritarian political system. The objective here is to assure the Kremlin leadership that the aim of our policy is not to topple them. Still, we must retain the right to criticize (and more) anti-democratic activity and human rights abuses, as we are doing now in connection with the arrest of Alexei Navalny.
At some point in the next generation, the Kremlin will realize that the United States is not its principal national security challenge. The United States has no designs on Russia’s territorial integrity or sovereignty. Moscow’s principal challenge is China, which even while pursuing cooperation with the Kremlin, has emitted signals that it does not consider its current border with Russia to be the final one.
The United States and Russia are natural partners in dealing with a rising, revisionist China. The same principles that we cite in defense of Ukraine against Russia in the Donbas and Crimea, we would cite to defend Russia against China in Vladivostok. The current crop of old men in the Kremlin will dismiss this as surely as Stalin dismissed the warnings from Churchill—and his agent in Japan—that Hitler would strike against the Soviet Union in 1941. We know how that turned out—and so do others in Russia.
John E. Herbst is Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.