Cornell University Press

The Wedge Strategy Logic of US-Russia Dialogue

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President Biden has called for a “summit” meeting with Putin to begin a new “strategic stability dialogue” to promote a more stable and predictable US-Russia relationship. The symbolism of summitry connotes bilateralism. Indeed, there are some very important duopolistic aspects of US-Russia security relations, especially in the realm of nuclear weapons. But the geopolitics driving the Biden initiative are trilateral. The US-China-Russia triangle dominates the strategic landscape.

US-Russia and US-China tensions have been sharpening for over a decade now. The 2017 US National Security Strategy used the unvarnished language of “great power competition” to depict those trends. Even before then, increased efforts to get tough with both Russia and China were underway. The predictable result—deeper military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing—has now forced Washington to take seriously the prospect of a Russia-China alliance and the dangers it could pose.

US-Russia and US-China tensions have been sharpening for over a decade now.

That question looms over the Biden-Putin summit and persistent debate over whether the US should seek some wider bargain in US-Russia relations, in order to concentrate against China, the main adversary. Many oppose such an effort, seeing Putin’s Russia as an incorrigible authoritarian foe locked in with China, and doubting that those two powers could form a competent alliance in any case. Nevertheless, some foreign policy experts and officials do argue that the US should both avoid pushing Russia and China together and, when possible, work with Russia in ways that create space between the two. With regard to the latter, politically sensitive possibilities will not be openly touted as such by US officials. But it would be surprising if they were not considered during the internal deliberations and “pre-negotiations” around the summit’s agenda that are now underway.

In these circumstances, “wedge strategies” (the subject of The Power to Divide) have returned with a vengeance. If Russia and China are using them to weaken US-led alliances in Europe and East Asia, can the US use them to divide Russia from China?

If Russia and China are using wedge strategies to weaken US-led alliances in Europe and East Asia, can the US use them to divide Russia from China?

We can’t know the details but we can form a picture of the key calculations at stake. The Power to Divide explores the history of states’ efforts to use “selective accommodation” wedge strategies to divide adversaries and explains what encourages them to try. For a US gambit to distance Russia from China today, the first calculation must address Russia’s “strategic weight”—how much difference it will make for US security to face a China allied with Russia versus one that is not. If an alliance with Russia will make China much more dangerous and harder to deter, then the US should, in principle, be willing to pay some political price—in concessions—to keep them apart. The second calculation concerns the capacity to pay such a price—does the US credibly control levers to accommodate Russia, that can influence its alignment, be manipulated at an acceptable cost, and not be “matched” or outbid by China?

Does the US credibly control levers to accommodate Russia that can influence its alignment, be manipulated at an acceptable cost, and not be “matched” or outbid by China?

The serious push for a summit with Russia signals some recognition of its strategic weight. As debates about the summit (and the dialogue more broadly) develop in the weeks ahead, they are likely to touch on whether the US can do anything to reverse the trend of Russia-China convergence, and, if so, whether the political compromises needed to effect such change—on issues like missile defense, military basing in eastern NATO, and ties to Ukraine and Georgia—would be tolerable or worth it.

Biden’s decision in February 2021 to join Russia in extending the New START arms control pact for five years was an important—but easy—first move in this direction. Further bargains that might help distance Russia from China will be harder to strike because they will entail a reversal rather than an extension of established US positions and priorities, and trigger sharp domestic and allied opposition to such moves.

*Featured photo: Putin graffiti in Farm Cultural Park, Favara, Sicily. Photo by Don Fontijn on Unsplash

The Power to Divide
Cover image of The Power to Divide.
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Timothy W. Crawford is Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College and author of Pivotal Deterrence.

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