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The goose and the gander
Putin, Biden and the trouble with imagination
A week ago today, US Ambassador John Sullivan delivered to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responses from Washington and Brussels. Thanks to the Spanish newspaper El País, we now know what those responses said — and that the written responses themselves are more or less the only real compromise the US and NATO are prepared, at the moment, to make.
If you were nervous about what the confidential responses would offer up, you needn’t have been: from the perspective of long-standing Western policymaking, their most objectionable inclusion is a disheartening number of split infinitives. Beyond that, they contain things that American and European officials have already said: a readiness to discuss strategic and conventional arms control, an eagerness to revitalize discussion venues at NATO, the OSCE and elsewhere, and a litany of grievances, ranging from Russian violations of its military exercise transparency commitments to its violations of Ukrainian territorial integrity.
The NATO document contains a commitment to the alliance’s open door policy. The US document, notably, does not — but that’s because it refers Russia’s demand that NATO cease enlargement to NATO itself, and thus refuses to engage. This, evidently, is the source of Vladimir Putin’s complaint to Emmanuel Macron that his core demands were being ignored.
And so we are more or less where we were: stalemate. Both sides explicitly recognize that discussions are better than war. Both sides also explicitly recognize that discussions will not, in the short term, resolve the perceived causes of a potential war. I remain convinced that protracted, open-ended and most likely fruitless ‘discussions’ are the most likely outcome of everything that has happened between Moscow, Kyiv, Brussels and Washington over the last couple of months — though I take the absence of war to be a meaningful outcome in its own right. The documents leaked to El País haven’t changed that calculation, and neither has Moscow’s rhetoric since Sullivan delivered them: gripes about “Anglo-Saxon meddling in European affairs” or supposed US efforts to “push Russia into war with Ukraine” are both par for the course and almost entirely unremarkable.
For some in the West — particularly but not only those on the left and who worry about excessive US militarism — the US and NATO responses reflect a lack of imagination: an inability to see a future security architecture for Europe that looks like anything other than the past. There is a moral argument to be made there, and it is certainly a conversation worth having, but it’s not the one I want to raise here, because if we want to know where we’re headed, it’s not a helpful perspective.
Having spent quite a bit of time here and elsewhere arguing for a more grounded view of the incentives that shape Vladimir Putin’s behavior, it seems I’ve missed a trick: we ought to afford the same courtesy to Joe Biden. After all, we can’t get inside Biden’s head any more than we can get inside Putin’s. We don’t know what he’s thinking and why, and we have no access to the workings of his moral compass.
But, as with Putin, there are some things we do know:
We know that Biden’s time horizons are both longer and shorter than Putin’s. He doesn’t have to worry about threats to his survival quite the same way his Russian counterpart does, but he also knows that his time in office is inherently limited. This means he can think a little bit further beyond the risks of the moment, but that dividends that accrue too far after the next election may be of little value.
We also know that Biden is much more captive to institutions than Putin is. Putin is beholden to various interests and understandings, and he doesn’t have absolute freedom of movement, but there is precious little that Biden can achieve on his own, and the inertia of a whole range of institutions — from the Senate to the State Department — is considerable.
As a result, we know that ambition for Biden — indeed, for any US president — works differently than it does for Putin. While both systems militate against radical change, Biden knows much more so than Putin that anything he does is likely to live on long past his own administration. (Witness his continuation of Trump trade policies on China, for example, or his difficulties in reanimating the nuclear arrangement with Iran. Or Trump’s continuation of Obama’s sanctions policies on Russia.)
That leaves us, I think, with two lessons: one analytical, and the other methodological.
The analytical lesson is about the reasons why we shouldn’t have expected Biden — or any other US president — to deliver a response to Moscow noticeably different from the one Putin received. Whether you want him to defend NATO or disband it, there is no analytically grounded reason to expect Biden to pivot rapidly away from policies that have been central to US foreign policymaking for decades. Over time — through protracted, open-ended discussions in the context of continued confrontation — that may change. But if it does, it will change because the Russian and US leaders learn to see and navigate their incentives differently, not because either of them is more moral or psychologically stable.
The methodological lesson is about the importance of consistency. Whatever approach we take to researching and analyzing politics and policymaking in one country — regardless of whatever attachment or antipathy we might have — really needs to be the same approach that we take to researching and analyzing politics in other countries. Russian and American politics are different. But we only know how different they are, and we can only build that difference into our analytical models, if we measure them with the same yardstick. The same applies to their presidents.