As Joe Biden takes over as president, the issue of how to deal with Russia will be one of the defining aspects of his foreign policy. Much of the Russia debate in Europe and the United States in the last decade or so has focused on whether to “reset” relations with Russia. This debate has come in many guises: the 2009 initial Obama-Clinton “reset”; the EU-Russia “partnership for modernisation”; the German-led Meseberg Initiative of the early 2010s; the EU’s offer of “selective engagement” with Russia in 2016; the 2019 French-led effort to engage Russia in dialogue after a summit in Bregançon.
This focus creates the illusion of a policy pendulum oscillating between phases of engagement and diplomatic hostility. But a deeper trend has been taking hold – that of Russia and the West each pursuing a policy of ‘mutual weakening’. This is likely to dominate Biden’s presidency and the next decade.
How Russia weakens the West
Throughout much of the 2000s, Russia viewed its resurgence through the prism, and expectation, of rising energy prices, economic growth and modernisation, and the creation of globally powerful state companies selling strategic resources, wielding political influence by doing so. But the 2010s led to a complete shift of strategy. Hopes of economic modernisation were all but ditched. As its economy settled into its sclerotic ways, Russia’s route to power through growth disappeared.
As a result, Moscow has increasingly concentrated on, arguably, a shorter route to power revival, based much less on self-improvement and much more on the weakening of its geopolitical opponents. This has taken multiple forms: courting mainstream politicians, supporting and financing all kinds of extreme left or right political parties; online disinformation and propaganda, sometimes in support of specific political forces, and sometimes simply in support of encouraging political chaos.
All of this has been topped off by a policy of peeling off allies and friends of the West, including within NATO and the European Union. Russia has gone a long way to diplomatically and economically court Turkey and Hungary, which are both NATO member states. It has also sought to weaken the West wherever possible: in EU candidate country Serbia – which recently announced the opening of a Russian military liaison office at its defence ministry; in the Central African Republic – where Russia supplies mercenaries and a top security adviser to the country’s president; and in Libya, Syria, the Gulf countries, Egypt, Israel, and many other states. This policy has been reasonably successful from a Russian standpoint. But it has failed in one big respect – that of preventing the West from responding in kind.
How the West weakens Russia
Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, the EU and US did not aim to weaken Russia in any sense. European and American interests certainly lay in the country not being as strong as the USSR, but they still wanted it to be stronger than in the 1990s. They did not want a large failed state with nuclear weapons, threaten to upset all kinds of geopolitical balances. In 2010, after the 2008 war in Georgia but in tune with Barack Obama’s own reset, the EU and Russia even launched a “partnership for modernisation”, whose aim was clearly to strengthen Russia economically and politically, not weaken it. Of course, the military invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 put an end to that strategy. The US and the EU introduced sanctions on Russia and sought to isolate it diplomatically. At least for the EU, the initial goal of sanctions was not necessarily to weaken Russia, but to incentivise it to stop destabilising Ukraine. As Russia continued its destabilisation tactics there, sanctions stayed and have gradually evolved, somewhat unintentionally, into a tool of weakening Russia as well. With sanctions in place, the country certainly possesses not only fewer chances to modernise its economy but also less money to invest in its military or its allies. Russia is not short of cash, but the hostile environment it has created around itself forces it to accumulate a significant war-chest for the darker days it expects ahead. The situation certainly limits its geopolitical options and Russia has been increasingly stingy when it comes to financially supporting its allies.
The policy of self-weakening
As both Russia and the West engaged in strategies of mutual weakening, both have also weakened themselves. The rise of populists in the US, United Kingdom, and throughout the EU has done massive damage to the credibility, cohesion, and foreign policy capacity of the West.
This self-destructive streak in Western politics has been matched only by the self-destructive streak in Russia, where its leadership has subordinated the country’s resources and economic future to foreign policy and military goals throughout large parts of the world. For now, Russia has been better than the USSR at restraining its impulse to overstretch in foreign policy, but it has still been over-exposing itself at a pretty fast rate.
The Kremlin has been obsessed with foreign policy to the detriment of pressing domestic matters – it has run Russia’s political and economic systems dry in the process. Russia has enough resources to stay the course for a few decades, but the longer it does so the worse the hangover will be from its foreign policy adventurism.
The next re-engagement with Russia
As the Biden administration begins to discuss Russia strategy with its European allies, this mutual weakening will probably continue. Neither Russia nor the West seem on the verge of revising their approach. Opportunities to re-engage will arise, but for that to happen one side has to feel that it is losing the race. Alternatively, both sides simultaneously need to decide that the policy is failing and both need to change course. For now, that is unlikely.
Russia thinks it has been doing pretty well in foreign policy. And from a Western standpoint, several overtures to Russia in the last decade not have not really paid off. Multiple reset offers, the freezing of NATO enlargements to Ukraine and Georgia, the decade-long repudiation of ‘humanitarian interventions’ as a guide to policy, and the softening of human rights promotion policies under the presidencies of both Obama and Donald Trump have not improved relations with Russia.
So the policy of mutual weakening is likely to dominate approaches on both sides under the Biden presidency and possibly beyond. The US State Department stated in mid-2020 that, when engaging with Russia (and China), “we must work to help the United States and its allies ‘run faster’ in that competition, as it were, and we must also help make those who seek to compete with us ‘run more slowly’.” There is also plenty of scope for transatlantic cooperation when it comes to making the alliance “run faster”. The road to that is, of course, through domestic political and economic transformations, which are beyond the scope of this article. But when it comes to foreign policy, one way to outcompete your adversaries is not just by rekindling the transatlantic alliance itself. It will also need to involve investing much more resource in new security partnerships with selected states from the post-Soviet space or the Middle East, while also taking steps to limit Russia’s ability to peel off allies and partners of the West.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.