While the U.S.-Russian confrontation will continue, the start of the Joe Biden administration in January will provide an opportunity for both Washington and Moscow to reimagine their relationship. The new White House team might not consider Russia a top priority, and the Kremlin might only expect more doom and gloom. But neither capital is served well by deteriorating relations, which raise the risk of a military collision between the world’s two leading nuclear powers to a dangerous level. Defusing tensions will require the two sides to reach a modicum of agreement on the stakes, the nature of their relationship, and appropriate ways to engage—with neither side compromising its fundamental principles or core interests. It’s a tall order if ever there was one.

Although each side is convinced the other is in decline, the hard truth is that neither country is about to go away, and the two cannot avoid bumping into one another on numerous critical issues across the globe. Russia and the United States remain by far the world’s two leading nuclear states, each with the power to end civilization as we know it. They are the two countries with the largest natural endowments, better positioned to survive extreme global disorder because they can pretend to something close to self-sufficiency. And, although China is rising to their level, they remain the only two powers—by virtue of geographical location or strategic reach—that can impact the entire territory of the Eurasian supercontinent that along with North America constitutes the core of the modern world. In light of this, Moscow and Washington—despite all their differences—need to develop a working relationship.

This is not a call for a reset or a new partnership, but rather for a responsible, less hostile relationship between rivals bitterly divided by visions of world order, geopolitical interests, and values. Neither country is about to abandon its abiding faith in its exceptional nature or grand mission, which put them at odds. The United States will continue to see itself as the world’s leading democracy, ordained to spread the benefits of freedom worldwide. Russia will continue to present itself as a champion of national sovereignty, determined to defend a world of diverse values. Neither country is about to capitulate on its vital geopolitical interests, no matter how troublesome that might be for the other side. And neither country is prepared to fundamentally alter its domestic order, even if both realize that substantial reform is necessary. These differences will become all the starker as the Biden administration restores a more traditional approach to foreign affairs after President Donald Trump’s four aberrant years. 

Today’s confrontation is thus systemic. It is not a product of misunderstandings or disagreements between leaders that could be overcome through better dialogue. Biden’s inauguration will not alter the basic nature of relations, nor will Putin’s eventual departure. The conviction that the other side’s policies are inimical to their national interests is firmly embedded in the mindset of each country’s elites. In these circumstances, the two countries need to acknowledge the perils of the current unrelenting enmity and seek to build relations on the basis of three broad goals that are in both countries’ interests: the prevention of nuclear war, the responsible management of competition to avoid inadvertent escalation into a military conflict, and cooperation on common, transnational threats.

These goals are akin to those that animated relations during the latter stages of the Cold War. But today’s confrontation is different from that period in essential ways that call for a different kind of engagement. It is not an all-out, zero-sum, existential contest for geopolitical and ideological dominance, in large part because U.S.-Russian relations are no longer the central axis of global affairs—U.S.–Chinese relations are—and the world has become polycentric. These conditions introduce an element of restraint, since each country has to take into account its relations with additional centers of power as it competes with the other. 

If the competition is no longer bipolar, then diplomatic engagement can no longer be solely, or even primarily, bilateral. Bilateral contacts need to be embedded in a multilateral framework. Since the end of the Cold War, the two countries have participated in what we might call small ad-hoc coalitions of necessity to deal with concrete problems: the contact group for Balkan conflicts and the P5+1 on Iran, for example. Looking forward, such coalitions need to become routine and extended to include discussion of strategic issues and regional architecture. Although the Chinese reject the idea for now, a China-Russia-United States dialogue on strategic stability is necessary in the future, supplemented in due course by the addition of France and the United Kingdom. The American-Russian-Saudi negotiations earlier this year to stabilize global oil markets should become a permanent feature of interaction among the energy superpowers.

Other coalitions are thinkable and practical: with Germany and France on European security, separately with Israel and Turkey on the Middle East, with India and/or Japan on Eurasian security, and with China, India, and Pakistan on Afghanistan, for example. Such small, multilateral strategic dialogues mitigate the negative consequences of U.S.-Russian power asymmetries, enrich discussions, and are more likely to result in ideas that can be implemented in practice because the critical countries on a given issue are engaged from the beginning.

Many of these dialogues are not ripe for official discourse at this point. They are best pursued unofficially via expert channels—ideally with official support. This approach would create a kind of public-private partnership for managing relations and help generate the public support necessary for the long-term success of any initiative. The end result would be a new model for relations conceived as a web of multilateral fora, official and unofficial, to stabilize them and temper competition.

To create such a web, one of the first issues the Biden White House and the Kremlin should discuss is how best to conduct relations, including consideration of what multilateral fora make sense at this point. Some will emerge naturally from steps the Biden team has already indicated it wants to take. Restoring the international community’s cooperation on the Iran nuclear issue will require work within the P5+1. Similarly, addressing climate change and rejoining the Paris Agreement—priorities for the Biden administration—open up avenues for the multilateral engagement of Russia, which is finally taking climate change seriously. Interestingly, despite otherwise deteriorating relations, Russia and the European Union have been holding intense, constructive discussions on this matter. U.S.-Russian-EU interaction on climate change could result in a breakthrough toward a new global agenda. 

Other urgent matters could also benefit from small multilateral fora that include both the United States and Russia. It is time, for instance, to revive the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, even if Washington decides to maintain its bilateral channel with Pyongyang, and Beijing remains North Korea’s principal partner. Adding other regional players to the discussion could help develop ways to stabilize the security situation in Northeast Asia and diminish the North Korean threat. In addition, a U.S.-NATO-EU-Russia dialogue on security issues could help stabilize the NATO-Russian frontier and reach agreements that could prevent the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces or similar systems in Europe, now that the INF Treaty is dead.   

But Presidents Biden and Putin should not limit these multilateral fora to issues on which there is a clear overlap in interests. Such fora are needed, and perhaps even more important, for issues where competing interests prevail. The increasingly volatile Middle East, for example, is ripe for a broader U.S.-Russian dialogue, perhaps building on the U.S.-Russian-Israeli talks that took place in the summer of 2019. Likewise, while the new coronavirus pandemic has unleashed an enduring acute global competition for the production of a vaccine and commercial profit, the current spikes in cases in the United States, Europe, and Russia suggests that a U.S.-EU-Russian dialogue on best public health practices is in order. 

Multilateral channels cannot and should not entirely supersede bilateral contacts. Indeed, there are three bilateral issues that require urgent attention, and which will to a great extent determine whether the fora outlined above are viable. First, Moscow and Washington need to find a way to restore normal diplomatic engagement, which was severely curtailed amid the intensifying confrontation following the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Second, the New START agreement needs to be extended for five years as a prelude to a sustained serious bilateral dialogue on strategic stability. And third, Moscow and Washington need to launch a dialogue on interference in each other’s domestic affairs, one goal of which would be the development of a set of rules of the road to manage interactions in cyberspace. 

Nothing that we have proposed above will change the essentially competitive character of U.S.-Russian relations. What is both possible and necessary is to stabilize relations at their currently low level and to prepare the groundwork for more constructive relations. In time, Moscow and Washington should be able to foster what we might call responsible great-power competition, which would be grounded in mutual restraint, leavened by collaboration on a narrow range of issues, and moderated by multilateral formats. Such a relationship would help us safely navigate what promises to be a long era of great-power competition in global affairs.
This essay draws on parts of Thomas Graham and Dmitri Trenin’s article “Towards a New Model for U.S.–Russia Relations,” Survival 62, no. 4, August–September 2020, 119–34. It was published here as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the US Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Embassy to Russia.

  • Dmitri Trenin
  • Thomas Graham