Letter From the Editors

The main buzzwords surrounding the recent Biden-Putin summit in Geneva were “strategic stability.” This concept, which originally referred to the arms race, has expanded to include a focus on common interests rather than divisive issues that offer no hope of compromise.

To this effect, Fyodor Lukyanov argues in a piece published in the run-up to the summit that the US and Russia need to “repair the confrontation,” and move beyond the almost farcical relationship that developed in the “abnormal, unhealthy and irrational atmosphere” of the Trump administration. He argues that it was the “gnarled tangle of fears, suspicion and self-doubt” prevailing in both countries that took the relationship to a new low.

Anna Arutunyan picks up this theme in her column summarizing the summit’s results. As she explains, even though both leaders said what was expected of them – with Biden criticizing Russia’s human rights record and crackdowns on dissent, and Putin “responding with the usual whataboutism” – they both seemed to understand that their most important goal was to find common ground on issues where cooperation is achievable. In sum, Arutunyan writes, “It’s quite possible that honest, professional negotiations may have given Putin far more incentive to cooperate than a whole slew of sanctions.”

Some of the areas where the two leaders found room for negotiation included arms control, cybersecurity and, surprisingly, the Arctic, one of the few parts of the world where US and Russian interests could potentially overlap. As political analyst Boris Mezhuyev explains, in 2018 China declared itself a “near-Arctic state,” a claim that is roundly rejected by all the actual Arctic states. This icy confrontation in the north gives Russia “some freedom of maneuver in the context of the unfolding conflict between the US and China.”

China also figured prominently in the Brussels communiqué released at the end of the NATO summit that preceded the Biden-Putin meeting. While NATO members still view Russia as the number one threat to the West, this is the first time they have taken a unified stance on Beijing, labelling it a “systemic challenge.”

In terms of Russia, the results of the NATO summit were not as encouraging as they were for the presidential summit. With Putin calling the organization a “cold war relic” that has been “kind of forgotten,” Yelena Chenenko posits that NATO has not so much been forgotten as “reimagined.” As the communiqué itself reads: “While NATO stands by its international commitments, Russia continues to breach the values, principles, trust and commitments outlined in agreed documents that underpin the NATO-Russia relationship.”

So, the US appears to be on a more positive path to stability with Russia than NATO does. But what of stability within Russia and the former Soviet space? Can international stability hold without a strong civil society at home?

Now that a Russian court has designated Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation, Citizen’s Rights Protection Foundation and their network of campaign offices extremist, anyone who has worked for, donated to or assisted these groups in any way is also considered extremist and banned from running in elections. As if this weren’t enough to secure United Russia’s victory in September’s State Duma elections, the ruling party has rearranged Russia’s list of candidates into 57 regional groups aimed at improving its chances of sweeping victory.

Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, for his part, has taken a more direct approach. Facing increasing sanctions pressure from the West, he has decided to create armed militias, which will undoubtedly be used to quash dissent at home, raising the specter of arbitrary detentions and worse. So while Russia can take some pride in its recent progress on the international stage, it would do well to remember that compliance with human rights and fundamental freedoms is a basic condition for stability at home and abroad.