A new approach, aimed at drawing red lines and preventing further destabilization, is unlikely to lead to quick success, and to some it will seem initially doomed to failure. But it’s worth a try.
The times of summits at the highest level have returned to relations between Russia and the West. The recent Geneva meeting of Vladimir Putin and Joseph Biden can be considered successful in several ways. Unlike the negotiations of the Donald Trump era, this time concrete results were achieved and at the same time a clear political signal was given: neither romantic hopes nor a restart of relations should be expected.
The United States has formulated its goals in advance. Washington’s bar of expectations was low: to limit the most serious risks (nuclear weapons and cyberattacks), stop further destabilization and mark red lines for each other. Such a summit could set the tone and serve as a model for future engagement: The West harbors no illusions about the revisionist nature of Russian foreign policy and the authoritarian model of its internal rule, but recognizes the need for negotiations to limit escalation. This approach, of course, cannot be called visionary or breakthrough, but it is perhaps the best option available in the current environment.
However, to continue this line, the United States and Europe need to better coordinate their actions, and Moscow must show that it accepts the new status quo and is ready to act within its framework. Biden’s approach demonstrated at the Geneva meeting – tough but fruitful negotiations – could be a model for the entire West. But the subsequent attempt by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to organize a similar EU summit – Russia failed, showing once again that Western Europe has not yet got rid of old approaches and illusions.
The main problem of the European attempt to hold a summit was that neither the strategic goal of such a meeting, nor its main theme, nor the format were understood. Would it not be like those helpless EU-Russia summits that took place before 2014? Wouldn’t it have been perceived by Moscow as a signal that claims against it have been forgotten and that business can be done again in the old way? Since Berlin and Paris did not bother to discuss this initiative in advance with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, it is not surprising that their proposal was rejected.
If such a summit is more carefully prepared, it will allow the EU to act as a united front with the United States. The European analogue of the Putin-Biden meeting can also be devoted to drawing red lines and identifying areas that are forbidden for unfriendly interference, such as, for example, electoral processes (especially in light of the upcoming elections in Germany and France) and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.
In addition, the United States and Russia have begun a dialogue on strategic stability issues. While the EU is still undecided about its role in US-Russian arms control negotiations, security in Europe, including in eastern Ukraine, is too important for Europeans to remain onlookers. A well-prepared summit could help reduce the risk of escalation in all of these areas.
However – and this is most important – in order to maintain the new status quo in relations between Russia and the West, Moscow needs to demonstrate that it itself is ready to respect the designated red lines and prevent a new escalation. The best possible scenario here would be the absence of new crises in relations with Russia, be it cyberattacks, interference in elections, military confrontation or increased internal repression. If the new status quo proves to be sustainable, other topics of common interest, such as the fight against coronavirus and climate change, could be put on the agenda.
Nevertheless, as the Bergedorf Roundtable in June showed , cooperation in these areas requires a realistic and balanced approach. In particular, Europeans should be careful not to fall into the same trap as they did in the partnership for modernization ten years ago, and not to flatter too much about the potential for positive change.
Russia remains highly dependent on fossil fuel exports, and disagreements over issues such as cross-border carbon management mechanisms could quickly turn cooperation on climate change into confrontation. The same goes for the fight against coronavirus, which has quickly become politicized due to “vaccine diplomacy.”
In relations between Russia and the West, there is still a great risk of further escalation and their exit into the bad infinity of mutual responses. A new approach, aimed at drawing red lines and preventing further destabilization, is unlikely to lead to quick success, and to some it will seem initially doomed to failure. But it’s worth a try, if only due to the lack of realistic alternatives.