Like in any other marriage, Joe Biden needs to be realistic about dealing with Russia

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Biden Putin
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images
  • President Joe Biden showed signs of a strategy based in realism in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin this month.

  • Such an approach is needed for dealing with Russia if Biden wants a relationship that best serves US national interests.

  • Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

President Joe Biden's first international trip of his presidency was punctuated by his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

The much anticipated meeting between the two leaders of nuclear powers with an increasingly strained relationship was short on substance, as Biden himself seemed to downplay expectations as not much more than a meet and greet.

This was a surprising stroke of realism from the president, as leaders of both parties have shown a flair for theatrical idealism about relations with Moscow, only to be let down by Russian intransigence.

Hopefully Biden will continue to temper his administration's expectations on this issue, as a strategy based in realism and restraint is the right approach to Russia as well as the future of the defense alliance that will always be linked to it - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Joe Biden speaks at NATO summit
Biden at a press conference after the NATO summit in Brussels, June 14, 2021. OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

NATO was formed in the aftermath of World War II to pool the resources of western, democratic nations against the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union. Many of these alliance members were decimated by the war and could have been easy fodder for the communist power looking to spread its doctrine globally.

To that extent, NATO was a success as the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. But leaders began looking for reasons to continue its existence, first through expansion and the promotion of democracy in former Warsaw Pact nations, the war on terrorism, and now on issues ranging from mass migration and pandemic response to climate change.

These are all well outside the scope of the organization's original purpose as a defensive alliance against an existential military threat that no longer exists.

Russia today, while still nuclear armed with a powerful conventional military, is politically and doctrinally different from the Soviet Union. Far from the legend of the Russian Empire's nationalistic might and the Soviet Union's influence and military power that Putin extols, his Russia is more a kleptocracy than anything else.

Putin and his cronies are not interested in some global political crusade like their Soviet predecessors. They are behaving quite rationally as a traditional (undemocratic) state seeking to strengthen their spheres of influence externally to protect their hold on power and corrupt business interests.

Russia aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov Vladimir Putin
Putin looks over a mockup of Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov at a military exposition in Sevastopol, Crimea, January 9, 2020. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Such a realistic assessment of Russia in 2021 and its government's national interests must be accepted by the Biden administration if they want to develop the type of bilateral relationship that best serves our own national interests.

Doing so would lead to shedding some of the long-held and widely accepted policies in many Western capitals toward Russia and the NATO alliance.

We must first give up the ghost of thinking our influence will turn Russia into a functioning, Western-style democracy. If the three decades since the Cold War have proven anything, it is that trying to use NATO as a tool to do so is having the opposite effect. Nor does it need to be such a country to serve our security interests.

In a similar vein, acting through a lens of geopolitical realism means understanding that any expansion of NATO to Russian borders will be seen as nothing less than a provocation in Moscow. While many NATO leaders may view the organization as much more than a defense alliance, Russian leaders see it primarily as that and a direct threat to their security and interests.

Admitting countries such as Ukraine or Georgia into the NATO alliance would bring very little defensive benefit to the United States or our allies while greatly increasing the risks we are taking on.

In the business world, an agreement that increases your risk exposure while bringing no profits would be quickly rejected.

Biden Putin
Biden, Putin, and their advisors during their meeting in Geneva. Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images

Any illusions that NATO expansion will bring Russia to heel are blindly idealistic and historically ignorant and would destroy the chances of a productive bilateral relationship.

The closest the United States ever got to a nuclear exchange during the Cold War was because of the alarming military relationship between the Soviets and our neighbors in Cuba. That knife cuts both ways.

It is a strategic error to set expectations about Russia that will ultimately fail us, wasting taxpayer dollars and increasing the risks to our own security for little return.

Biden's cautious instincts about his first meeting with Putin should color the rest of his administration's outlook on Russia - seeking to find areas of common interests to work on while deconflicting from areas of provocation. From marriage to geopolitics, that's how all great bilateral relationships work.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities. He previously worked for nearly a decade on Capitol Hill, most recently as the lead staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee for Sen. Mike Lee.

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