Re-engage or rebuff? Joe Biden’s presidential election victory is a reprieve for Atlanticism. Europeans and Americans are talking again about what they can do together. High on the agenda is handling Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Donald Trump’s departure from the White House will be an obvious moment to turn the screws on the Kremlin to raise the cost of Mr Putin’s myriad breaches of the rules-based international order. Another response would be to test if there is an opportunity to recast the relationship. The two approaches are not as far from each other as they might seem.
These are not the best of times for Mr Putin. A few months ago, he was celebrating constitutional changes that would allow him to serve as president for life. It has been downhill ever since. The Russian economy, weakened by low oil prices, has been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The rouble has fallen sharply and living standards are moving in the same direction. The president spends a lot of time locked away in his Dacha outside Moscow.
Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets in neighbouring Belarus. A botched attempt to poison Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny with novichok has reminded the world of the Kremlin’s sponsorship of political assassination and prompted a new round of western sanctions. Russia’s continued presence in eastern Ukraine comes at the expense of costly sanctions imposed by the US and EU.
A war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has destabilised the south Caucasus and seen Turkey challenge Moscow for regional influence. Political unrest in Kyrgyzstan has put a question mark over Russian influence in central Asia. As for Russia’s interventions in Syria and Libya, as bold as they may seem, it is hard to quantify the strategic gains.
Mr Trump’s defeat robs Mr Putin of his most important admirer and of a relationship that added legitimacy to his authoritarian rule. More than that, Mr Biden promises to refurbish the Atlantic alliance. President-elect Biden is of a generation that greatly prizes Nato.
Put the various woes together and it cannot be beyond possibility that Mr Putin is now considering whether his regime’s best interests lie in another four years in open conflict with the west. If there was ever going to be a time to consider some sort of accommodation this must surely be it.
Reset, of course, is not Mr Biden’s favourite word. As vice-president, he was around when Barack Obama launched just such a policy in 2009. It went nowhere. And in the aftermath of Mr Putin’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the vice-president took much of the responsibility for policy towards Moscow and eastern Europe. This was before the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US election to tilt the odds against Hillary Clinton.
More recently, Mr Biden is on record as saying that the west should impose real costs on Mr Putin’s regime for violations of international norms and that the US will back civil society groups opposing Kremlin authoritarianism.
And yet. Mr Biden is also a pragmatist. He has signalled that, as Mr Putin suggested, the New Start strategic arms treaty — the last bilateral agreement limiting nuclear weapons — should be extended beyond its February expiry.
The logic is straightforward: whatever the state of relations between Washington and Moscow there will be occasions when the two sides would do best to co-operate. Climate change might be another area; so, too, the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. The west, after all, did business with Moscow at the height of the cold war.
Whether such co-operation could be the prelude to a general thaw is the more difficult question. I have my doubts. Mr Putin has spent 20 years casting himself as the leader Russia needs to stand up to the west. The sense of grievance at the loss of the Soviet empire runs deep.
On the other side of the fence, many, perhaps most, Europeans would back a reset. Some, notably French president Emmanuel Macron, have been eager to normalise relations with Mr Putin. German chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure to cancel construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas directly into Germany, would also be receptive.
Therein lies the danger. Much as it makes sense for Mr Biden to explore the possibility of warmer ties, too many Europeans have been ready to bow to Mr Putin’s terms. In truth, a reset would have a useful chance of success only if Moscow committed to an enduring change in its behaviour. The way to persuade Mr Putin is to be implacably tough from the outset.