What a Biden presidency means for Russia-US relations

Originally published for the Post-Soviet Press Group — 19 November 2020

As a divisive US election draws to a close, what does a Biden presidency mean for the future of Russia-US relations — and what legacy will Trump’s isolationism leave?

Joe Biden’s victory heralds a return to form for American foreign policy, with the President-elect himself reportedly telling foreign leaders that the US is “going to be back in the game”. Long-time internationalist Joe Biden defeated incumbent isolationist President Donald J. Trump after a dramatic election battle. Despite the battle for office being characterised by domestic issues and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the stark differences in the candidate’s foreign policy positions will undoubtedly have global ramifications, with Russia and its near abroad being no exception.

Areas of foreign policy predicted to change include: defence treaties (most notably New-START); NATO funding and subsequent power projection in Europe; Ukraine; and increased American backing of international norms and their corresponding sanctions.

Biden’s history in the region

Historically, Joe Biden has been a staunch internationalist, advocating for a global US presence. Biden has been shown to hold a neoliberal position on foreign affairs, supporting the war in Iraq, and stating his belief in the United States’ “traditional role as the leader of a world order based on promotion of democracy, multilateralism, alliance-building and diplomatic engagement”.

Regarding Russia and Eastern European policy positions, whilst once an ambassador for cooperation between the states in the late 1970s, Mr Biden advocated for a more hard-line position on security relations during the Obama administration, citing Russia’s “withering” economy and population base — an approach reminiscent of Cold War-era, civilisational point-scoring. More recently in 2018, the President-elect co-authored a Foreign Affairs polemic titled “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies”, forecasting a more interventionist stance in response to electoral interference, subversion of democratic political systems, and the version of “Hybrid Warfare” popularised by the Kremlin.

Potential changes

The arms reduction treaties that play such a fundamental role in Russia-US security relations are likely to be renewed and attempted to be expanded upon, with the renewal of New START potentially being the first test of relations between the Biden administration and the Kremlin.

Whether there will be any systemic change in treaty formalities is doubtful, however, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov predicting a mere repeat of President Obama’s stance in the region. Despite positions on treaties and disagreements remaining relatively consistent across administrations, violations of agreements can be predicted to come with a sharpened American response in light of four years of isolationism and seemingly lacklustre power projection.

International norms can be expected to play a much bigger role in Biden’s foreign policy in the region than Trump’s — an approach unlikely to sit well within the Russian conceptualisation of sovereignty. President-elect Biden expressed a hardened line towards Russia, proposing the imposing of “real costs” for violations of international norms. This proposal to punish transgressions of these norms can be read as a vehicle to cement the US at the heart of European security affairs.

The emphasis on international norms as a centrepiece of US policy in the region could be perceived as increased US imperialism. This would feed into the narrative of a “besieged” and “civilisational” Russia, which is already rife. Such Putin-legitimising discourse results in the hardening of policy and the drawing of volatile “red lines” that complicates cooperation.

An increase in the support of NATO is a cornerstone of Biden’s projected Atlanticist foreign policy. The promised increase in funding and troops will, in theory, bolster the ability to mitigate any Russian annexation efforts and alternative attacks on sovereignty. Whilst this will ensure continued European security and American power-projection, it will do nothing to foster pro-Western movements within Russian politics, nor long-term reconciliation; a concern not relevant to Biden, who has emphasised multiple times the economic weakness of Russia and its diminishing international influence. The focus on Russia may be secondary to Washington’s focus on China, but a reinvigorated, American-backed NATO will ensure the USA and NATO remain a tense priority in Russian foreign policy.

Despite bipartisan support of Ukraine in the US, Biden holds a greater understanding of the strategic importance of the region. This can be attributed to his tenure as Vice- President, during which much time and political capital was invested in the country, compared to President Trump’s superficial knowledge. In reference to international norms, support for Ukraine simply because it is a democracy can also be predicted to increase under Biden. Despite a widely positive reception to Biden’s electoral victory in Ukraine, domestic discord, NATO-scepticism, and scandals surrounding his son Hunter may result in a more backseat, defence-oriented rather than political role in Ukraine.

All signs indicate a Biden presidency continuing to pursue peace in Donbass, but Russian participation remains the lynchpin in achieving any kind of peace in the region.

Joe Biden has wasted no time in expressing support for the democratic protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and condemned the ongoing human rights abuses; President Trump failed to release a similar statement. Biden’s vows to support opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and to “significantly expand” sanctions indicate a more central role in European affairs than his predecessor. Although well-meaning, this kind of increased support against Kremlin- backed authoritarian regimes in the near abroad threatens to feed into Putin’s legitimacy narrative if not navigated carefully.

The spectre of Trumpism remains?

The case for neoliberal business as usual can be tempered by the close result of the election and the potential that the “spectre of Trumpism” haunts Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives; the outcome of the ongoing Senate elections will be key. Foreign policy bill-blocking and the difficulties of overseas power projection with domestic divisions could hamstring Euro-centric policy efforts. The extent to which Trump’s isolationism and NATO-scepticism has seeped into the GOP and permanently changed Europe and the near abroad’s reliance on the US remains
to be seen. The cross-party condemnation of Trump’s policy in the region, most notably the backlash after the 2018 Helsinki Summit, suggests that the so-called spectre of Trumpism will do little to block the majority of anti-Russian rhetoric and US presence in the region.

The US election tells many stories about the state of politics in the region and
potential pivots in policy, with Russia and Eastern Europe being no exception. An optimistic analysis of the Biden administration would be increased engagement in the shared norms and challenges of arms-control, nuclear proliferation, COVID vaccines, climate change, terrorism etc. — opposed to a disengaged, isolationist America and European power vacuum.

Biden’s historical actions in the region and consistent view of Russia as a weak, but dangerous, animal suggests a less than cooperative future. Closing the door on chances of tangible, long-term reconciliation and cooperation between the two states seems to be an acceptable price to pay for a collective European security with the US firmly at the helm once more. Despite comments by Russian officials expecting a repeat of Obama’s policies in the region, domestic and global uncertainties indicate a less active role and even the potential for cooperation via the renewal of New START. However, once the dust settles at home, and provided Trump’s legacy does not live on
in the Senate, US engagement in the region can be expected to rise and consolidate, heightening tensions between the Kremlin and Washington.

Postgraduate student studying Russian Politics and Economics