Are US-Russian relations set to get worse with Joe Biden as president? It is no secret that President-Elect Biden is likely to take a tougher stance on Russian aggression than his predecessor. In all likelihood we will see policies and rhetoric very similar to that of the Obama administration. There is scope for Biden to go further, calling Russia the ‘biggest threat’ to US security. In his campaign he had already set out to implement a series of measures to restrict Russian efforts to manipulate US and western politics. Stronger ties with traditional US allies such as the EU and NATO are high on Biden’s priorities, another blow for Russia. Yet, there is still hope for cooperation between the two countries, a stable and more conventional administration could bolster productive dialogue.
With leaders all around the world having congratulated Biden on his election victory, the Kremlin is yet to comment. In contrast, they rushed to congratulate Trump on his victory in 2016. Perhaps this a bit of a power-play by the Russian president, who has already commented on Biden’s ‘sharp anti-Russia rhetoric’. There have been suggestions from commentators that a lack of a response is the Kremlins way of saying ‘Russia does not care what happens in the US’. If that is the case, it may well fall on deaf-ears after their clear agenda in 2016.
It is no secret Biden is a staunch Europhile and will be looking to increase US relations with the EU and NATO. There is talk of a NATO summit early on in his presidency, a stark difference to the approach of Trump who reduced cooperation. It is worth noting that Biden, like Trump, will continue to pressure members to spend that precious 2% of GDP on their defence budget. A reinvigorated and cohesive NATO alliance puts significantly more pressure on Russia and its borders. That coupled with European cooperation will amount to a strong and united front to face China and Russia.
On the campaign trail, Biden has pledged to impose real costs on Russia due to its continuing violation of international norms. A worrying sign for Moscow as their cooperation with Belarus’ leader Lukashenko could lead to tense relations as Biden will likely assume a strong stance on this issue.
Russia has significantly benefited from Trumps antagonism towards US allies and Biden aims to reverse this. He wants America to be more globally visible and aims to close the gap on Russia’s ability to manoeuvre that they were afforded under Trump. Anti-Russian rhetoric from US presidential candidates is nothing new, but with previous experience in the Obama administration Russia may be concerned about the action Biden is willing to take. The planned support for democratic movements around Russia will be one of these such worries for the Kremlin.
There will no doubt be a tougher stance on Russia under Biden compared to Trump, but this does not mean there will be a lack of cooperation and dialogue. Putin is said to be encouraged by Biden’s commitment to the New START Nuclear Arms Treaty. They both are seasoned politicians and recognise the importance of a stable relationship and cooperation on matters such as nuclear weapons.
Russia may well see the president-elect as a positive step for relations in the sense that he offers greater predictability compared to Trump. This was seen during the depths of the cold war; the USSR was able to negotiate with the ruthlessly anti-Soviet Reagan administration because they knew where they stood. Biden is a known entity for Russia, he made his first visit there over forty years ago and will have built relationships with officials in Moscow.
The administration plans to balance confrontation with engagement, a clear and robust approach that should allow for discussion and cooperation. This offers Russia stability and predictability, allowing them to relax in a sense as they can be confident that proper diplomatic procedures will be adhered to. Now is a chance to cooperate on climate change, the Iranian nuclear deal, pandemic recovery and counter-terrorism. There are bigger issues to tackle globally and it seems that both Biden and Putin are well aware of this. Cooperation has mutual benefits.
Relations between Russia and the US are expected to chill somewhat, but the chance of the two finding pragmatic ways to do mutually beneficial business is set to increase.