Ashford: Détente may not have prevented the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but it did result in major arms control agreements, notably those signed as a result of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. And I think that’s what the Biden administration is aiming for here: not an attempt to resolve every problem in the U.S.-Russia relationship but a focus on areas where progress is possible and necessary.
Sestanovich: I’m sure Putin would love to think that he was being invited by the United States to revive the glory days of détente, but that’s not at all how I’d describe what Biden says he offered. Richard Nixon and Kissinger did not upbraid Brezhnev for human rights abuses, they didn’t go on at length about how the United States would push back against Soviet objectionable initiatives, and they didn’t say the Soviet Union’s reputation depended on whether other governments respected Moscow’s approach to major international problems. Russian-American relations are in a very different place now — and despite the frequent comparisons Russians make between Brezhnev and Putin, we’re not going back
Ashford: It also sounds like Biden told Putin some specific areas where the United States would retaliate if Russia took further steps, which is welcome. That specificity is far more likely to succeed in deterring Russian bad behavior than a generic warning about violating international norms.
Stephens: I agree that Biden’s approach was, as Emma pointed out earlier, closer to Reagan’s than it was to Nixon’s. Here’s a question for the two of you: What is the evidence that Putin particularly cares about his reputation or that he’s paid any price for harming it? A British court concluded that he approved the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, using a radioactive toxin in 2006. Putin shrugged it off, and Russian agents were poisoning other enemies in Britain just a few years later. Russia violated the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but the Biden administration is still interested in further arms control.
Ashford: I don’t think Putin does care about his international reputation. This was the area of Biden’s remarks that I thought was weakest. Certainly, Biden wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t entirely ignoring the issue of human rights, but the notion that Putin will be persuaded not to do these things because of reputational costs wasn’t particularly plausible.
Stephens: Putin seems to do exactly what he pleases — and gets away with it.
Sestanovich: Biden’s answer to all your doubts was simple: He shares them. He said we’ll know in coming months whether we’ve got a dialogue that matters, whether the Russians are prepared to talk seriously — and act accordingly — about any of the problems the leaders ticked off today. Still, I’m not so sure that Putin is as indifferent to reputation as you say. Wouldn’t he like to be invited back into international polite society? Russians are highly status conscious, and for all Western governments to treat him as a loathsome creep has got to hurt. The question is, what if anything will he do to make himself more presentable?
Ashford: In order to put red lines around the issues we really care about — like election meddling — we might have to deprioritize some of these other issues, and Biden seems to understand that trade-off.