President-elect Biden has to devise a tricky equilibrium: How to work with Russia, keep bilateral relations at a neutral level, reach a new non-proliferation agreement and, at the same time, push back on Russia, making it accountable for its actions via new sets of “sanctions from hell.” The task is more complicated for the President-elect’s administration due to the mutual distrust between Biden and Putin. Both sides show an apparent unwillingness to work together. The only way here is “to deal with Russia as it is” and not expect a miracle – the relations will be “overcharged” for an extended period.
During the campaign, Biden promised that Putin’s days as a Russian leader were numbered if he won the presidency. Moreover, Biden reiterated that today’s Russia is an opponent that constitutes a threat to the U.S., its allies, and even the Russian people. For this reason, Biden called to empower NATO and to make the partnership more potent than ever to oppose these threats.
The policy issues and disagreements doubled from mutual dislike between the two leaders. According to The Hill, Biden, in the framework of his visit to Russia, said to Putin: “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin smiled and replied, “We understand one another.”
“OVERCHARGED” INSTEAD “RESET”
Interestingly and almost enigmatically, all the attempts to re-establish Russia and the U.S.’s relations failed after an anecdotal story wherein former State Secretary Clinton’s gift to Russia was “lost in translation.” In anticipation of Moscow’s meeting, Secretary Clinton presented a magic red button that was meant to symbolize the era of warming relations to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This gift must represent, “What President Obama and Vice President Biden, and I have been saying, that is ‘we want to reset our relationship,'” Clinton said and gave it to Lavrov. Clinton explained that the administration was looking for the right Russian word. Lavrov responded that the term was wrong and instead of “reset,” the word was “overcharged.” Since then, relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated. Many experts regard current relations as worse than during Soviet Union times.
This is one very telling signal that there will be no more resets during the Biden administration. A former assistant Secretary of State in the administration of George W. Bush, David Kramer, expressed the same opinion. “No reset. I don’t think he’s going to try anything like 2009,” he said in an interview to Voice of America. He continued that, “Moscow has continued with a disinformation campaign against him (Biden), and so I don’t think he’s going to extend a hand and say, ‘Let’s make nice.” David Shambaugh from the Elliott School of International Affairs is sure that we can expect a future confrontation with Russia in Biden’s era. “Trump produced an enormous amount of chaos and uncertainty for other countries,” Dr. Shambaugh said. “He significantly undermined core American alliances in Europe and compromised the traditional commitment to human rights and the power of the American democratic and civic example.” He is sure that Biden will push against Russia very strongly, and “Trump’s years of indulging the Kremlin” are over. It looks like Moscow won’t even try to play “in good faith” per relations with the new administration. Vladimir Putin was, probably, the last foreign leader to congratulate Biden only doing so as recently as today. In the interview for Russia-1, Putin said that there are “no hidden motives,” and he is “just waiting for an end to the domestic political standoff.” However, he is not afraid that relations will worsen. “You can’t spoil a spoiled relationship. It is already spoiled,” he said.
ATTENTION TO THE OPPOSITION
Biden’s cabinet may show more support for Russian opposition leaders like Alexey Navalny. Even during a busy campaign, Biden paid a lot of attention to Navalny’s situation and harshly criticized Putin for remaining silent on a Russian opposition leader‘s poisoning.
Compared to Putin’s intolerance to his opposition, Biden’s relations with the Russian opposition could be successful. Navalny was one of the first Russian politicians who congratulated President-elect and Kamala Harris on their victory. Navalny took to Twitter to celebrate the victory of “the Americans on defining the new leadership in a free and fair election,” and regretted that, “this is a privilege not available to all countries.” The Russian opposition leader also expressed his readiness to work with the new U.S. administration to reach a new level of cooperation between Russia and the U.S.
SANCTIONS FROM THE HELL
According to several media sources, the new administration is ready to press its crusade against Russia to hold the government accountable for Navalny’s situation.
According to an article on the Nikkei Asia website, several options are waiting in the U.S. Congress. Bills with the new tranche of sanctions are the, “Defending Elections against Trolls from Enemy Regimes Act,” and the “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act. The last one also has the nickname “sanctions bill from hell.” These documents will impose new measures against Russian state-owned banks, sovereign debt, and the energy sector. The most painful for Russia would be the cessation of its giant gas pipeline project, Nord Stream-2.
Julian Ropcke, the columnist of German magazine, “Bild,” wrote, “Donald Trump will soon no longer be U.S. President, but his successor Joe Biden has at least as tough a position. He sees the pipeline as fundamentally bad business, and will be the first to implement the heaviest sanctions to date against active supporters of the project; they have already been decided.”
The new round of confrontation between the two leaders will be over the Middle East. Russia has different allies in the region, and its plan is not in accordance with the U.S. Most notably, Putin revived Russia’s clout in the Middle East by repeatedly backing Iran, saving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s collapsing regime, and placing his bets on renegade General Khalifa Haftar in war-dismembered Libya. If we go closer to the Russian borders, there are many conflict zones like Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. Russia and the U.S. had strong disagreements about Georgia’s war in 2008, where the conflict centered on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, the U.S. and the principal part of the international community supported Georgian sovereignty, while Russia took sides with two breakaway provinces.
Furthermore, the annexation of Crimea and support of separatist governments in Ukrainian Donbas in 2014 caused Russia several sets of sanctions from the E.U. and the U.S. Ukrainian Member of Parliament of the European Solidarity party, Oleksiy Goncharenko, said in his interview with the Atlantic Council that, “Biden has no sympathy for Vladimir Putin.” Experts see Biden’s win as “a positive for Ukraine” because it gives Ukraine “the reason to believe that Biden will recognize the importance of addressing ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.” The neighbor of Ukraine, Belarus, has its issues, too. While the U.S. and other parts of international civil society do not recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate leader, the Russian government continues to negotiate with him about deeper integration of two countries. These negotiations haven’t take into account the Belarusian opposition view widely recognized by the international community and its people.
CLOSER TO A NEW GRAVITATIONAL PULL
These disagreements will probably lead to more cooperation between Russia and China, especially if Russia wants to borrow money with the sanctioned sovereign debt. At the same time, the Russian economy suffers from coronavirus. Thus, the Nikkei Asia journalist sees the future of foreign relations with Russia during Biden’s rise strengthening China’s gravitational pull.
However, there is still an area of mutual interest between the U.S. and Russia, where the two countries can reach a rare agreement, non-proliferation. President-elect Joe Biden has expressed unequivocal willingness to extend the New START treaty. Biden sees this agreement as “an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia, and (would like to) use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.” It caught the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Biden has publicly said that he is ready to extend New START or sign a new treaty on limiting strategic offensive weapons. It is already a key element of our possible cooperation in the future,” Putin said to Russia-1 TV.
Former deputy General Secretary of NATO, Alexander Vershbow, during the discussion at the Atlantic Council, said that the U.S. must help Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus to defend their sovereignty and we need to raise the cost for Russia’s aggressive behavior. At the same time, “as we are pushing back, we also need to stabilize the relationship for dialogue on arms control. There will still be a few areas where we can find common ground such as non-proliferation and counter-terrorism.” He also urged to reconcile with the fact that Putin may stay in power for several more years or even decades. In this case, there is no choice but to deal with Russia as it is. Similarly, he called to preserve people to people relations, and invite more young Russians to the U.S. and Europe to keep cooperation on the level of public diplomacy.