That doesn’t mean President Joe Biden can Make Russia Boring Again. Administrations may come and go, but the geopolitical challenge to the US from the Kremlin leader, it seems, remains constant.
But Russia — a country with a nuclear arsenal rivaling that of the US — can’t simply be placed in the penalty box. Policy experts generally agree that the Russian government must play a role in responding to major world crises, from reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions to recently halting the brief, bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Even some of the most outspoken US critics of Putin — such as Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia — acknowledge that the US must selectively engage Russia on pressing global issues such as pandemic response and climate change.
But don’t expect Biden’s policy to be described as a “reset” — that’s a dirty word in Washington when it comes to Russia policy. Back in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a “reset” button as part of a bid to reboot relations with Russia. The gift went down like a lead balloon: The button was mistranslated to read “overload.”
Still, there seems to be a grudging consensus in Washington that current engagement with Russia just doesn’t work. Back in August, a group of US foreign-policy worthies signed an open letter calling for a “rethink” of US policy toward Russia.
“It makes no sense for two countries with the power to destroy each other and, in 30 minutes, to end civilization as we know it to lack fully functioning diplomatic relations,” said the letter, which was signed by (among others) Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser, and by Jon Huntsman, his former ambassador to Moscow.
That open letter prompted a response by a more hawkish group of former diplomats, military and intelligence professionals and other experts who argued Putin’s kleptocracy needed to be more severely constrained.
The signatories to the first letter responded that they were not seeking a “reset” with Russia, just a “clear-eyed” appraisal of Russia policy.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, called for Navalny’s release following his arrest on arrival in Moscow.
“Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Sullivan said on Twitter. “The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.”
Putin has all the resources of the state and a formidable security apparatus that can smother domestic political opposition. But Navalny appears to be betting that Putinism is entering its gerontocratic stage, with an aging and isolated leader out of touch with the people. It seems unlikely that street protests could oust Putin, but domestic political opposition seems to have received a major boost from Navalny’s willingness to roll the dice and return from abroad.
Navalny shouldn’t be mistaken for a traditional Western liberal: The anti-corruption campaigner has elements of populism and Russian nationalism in his politics, and he has shown a pragmatic willingness to ally with more pliant and generally pro-government parties to challenge Putin’s ruling United Russia party in local elections. He even slammed Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, calling it an “unacceptable act of censorship.”
As Navalny’s moves show, who wins or loses Russia is a matter for Russians to decide.