After every U.S. presidential election, hope once again beckons that the new administration will be more successful than its predecessors in improving U.S.-Russian relations. The 2020 elections may finally break that pattern. Assuming that former Vice President Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Inauguration Day 2021, he will take office not as an idealistic or naïve newcomer to foreign affairs, but rather as a veteran with a well-developed sense of priorities and perspectives—and this includes a healthy dose of disillusionment with how President Barack Obama’s efforts to reset relations with Russia beginning in 2009 turned out.
This is not particularly good news for the Kremlin, or for Russian President Vladimir Putin, which may explain why Putin held off offering congratulations to the president-elect. When in the Senate, Biden was a consistent critic of Kremlin policy, while also holding up legislation that mattered a great deal to Moscow—such as graduation from the Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions—in order to pressure Russia to be more accommodating to U.S. preferences. A leading advocate for NATO enlargement, the former vice president also was Obama’s point man on Ukraine in supporting Kyiv’s efforts to escape Russia’s geopolitical orbit. A rarity among leading Democratic politicians for his stated support for American oil and gas production, Biden has consistently looked for ways to reduce Russia’s energy influence, especially in Europe.
Most of Biden’s selections for senior national security positions in his administration share these views. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris made a point of stressing she would “consistently stand up to Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights and the international rule of law.” Anthony Blinken, the prospective secretary of state, stressed the importance of “undermining Russia politically in the international community and isolating it politically.” Along with national security advisor-designate Jake Sullivan, Blinken and other leading Biden appointees are expected “to devise a tougher approach to Russia.”
On the other hand, Biden does not have any “Russia baggage” that would inhibit him from making conciliarity gestures toward Moscow for fear of being accused of being a Kremlin agent. He also has consistently demonstrated a pragmatic streak, as evidenced by his role as a voice of moderation and caution within the Obama national security team. Yet a Biden administration is likely to reduce Russia’s freedom of maneuverability on the global stage. For four years, the Kremlin has successfully exploited worries and concerns about the Trump administration’s unpredictability and unreliability to convince key U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to hedge their bets by not foreclosing on their relationships with Moscow.
However, Biden is likely to repair much of the damage in U.S.-German relations and attempt to reconstruct the Obama-era Berlin-Washington consensus on dealing with Russia, especially on sanctions and on limiting Russia’s economic influence—including the exploration of a voluntary German pause on the Nord Stream 2 project. If a Biden administration can also lower the temperature in U.S.-China relations, this may reduce some of Beijing’s interests in supporting Moscow, especially if Biden can repair some of the damage caused by Donald Trump’s màoyì zhàn (trade war).
Moreover, a Biden administration is likely to restart diplomatic efforts to engage Iran, diminishing Russia’s value to Tehran; re-engage in Syria; and pick up where things left off in 2016 to increase efforts to bring post-Soviet states into the Euro-Atlantic community. From Belarus to Venezuela, the new administration is likely to deploy American diplomatic and economic power to counter Russian efforts.
Russia therefore derives no benefit from a Biden administration that is able to restore America’s standing around the world, and the Kremlin, to that extent, has nothing to lose by not hoping that political turmoil within the United States will distract and consume the Biden team in the first months of 2021.
For his part, Biden is unlikely to include any “Russia-engagers” as part of his national security team, while there will be plenty of “Russia-skeptics.” While a Biden administration will want to see a new arms control agreement in place, the prevailing attitude is that arms control benefits Russia as well and therefore there is no need to try and sweeten the deal, say, by reducing sanctions or agreeing not to target Russian energy projects like Nord Stream 2. Faced with this assessment, the Kremlin, in turn, is not likely to expend a great deal of energy in trying to engage the Biden administration, but it will be anxious to protect its other important relationships from the prospect of U.S. interference.
The risk is that, without the disruptive influence of Donald Trump as a factor, U.S. partners that pushed back against Washington’s efforts to curtail their ties with Russia may be more amenable to persuasion from a Biden administration. This may require the Kremlin to find ways to become more accommodating, not only to other governments (for instance, to Emmanuel Macron and a lame-duck Angela Merkel on Ukraine), but also to major multinational companies and international investors. Thus, reducing a series of irritants to close down possible excuses for other countries and firms to re-evaluate their ties with Russia may become a bigger driver in Moscow’s actions.
At the same time, as the Kremlin considers questions of transition—reshaping the political system, dealing with the question of a long-term successor to Putin and efforts to jumpstart the “national projects” designed to rejuvenate the Russian economy—Moscow may decide that it does not need unnecessary problems in its relationship with the United States. In turn, if the Biden team decides it needs a period of peace and quiet to deal with a post-pandemic recovery, then perhaps Moscow and Washington can re-engage on “strategic stability” dialogue and expand the limited deconfliction process developed for Syria to encompass other flash points around the world. Extending the New START agreement and finding ways to re-instate the Open Skies accords and the INF Treaty would also prevent the relationship from deteriorating further, since arms control may be one of the few non-controversial areas that can pass muster in both Washington and Moscow. It may not be as grandiose as dreams of a strategic partnership—but it is a much more realistic, and achievable, goal.
Official White House photo by David Lienemann.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.