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29 December 2020

What will Joe Biden bring to the US-Russia relationship?

Despite Donald Trump’s chummy attitude towards Vladimir Putin, relations have deteriorated between the two countries. Will much change under the next president?

By Emily Tamkin

The final weeks of the Trump administration included a piece of news. A company called SolarWinds, based in Texas, was used as the foothold for what may have been the largest-ever spying operation against the United States. The operation, which appears to have gone undetected for nine months, targeted multiple US government agencies.

Russia is widely believed to have been behind the attack (even Donald Trump’s usually sycophantic secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, broke with the president to accuse Russia). Trump’s term has thus been bookended by alleged interference in a US election and an alleged widespread hack.

One of the ironies of the Trump years is that, though Trump boasted that he thought he would have good relations with Vladimir Putin, and though the two had a chummy summit midway through Trump’s presidency, US-Russia relations deteriorated further.

Congress threatened to sanction any country that engaged in significant transactions with major companies and agencies in the Russian defence sector. Individuals thought to be close to the Kremlin were sanctioned too – banned from traveling to the US or using its financial institutions.

More sanctions were added for a chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, England. Russian diplomats were expelled and consulates were closed. The US announced this month that it would close the last two remaining consulates in Russia. A pro-Putin US president, it turns out, can do very little for relations on his own, particularly when his fondness for Russia leaves the rest of Washington especially wary.

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Joe Biden is decidedly not pro-Putin. He has called the Russian president a “thug” and derided Trump for being Putin’s “puppy.”

Antony Blinken, whom Biden intends to nominate to be secretary of state, was, like Biden, part of the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with Russia, has become increasingly hawkish on Russia since the 2016 presidential election.

Biden’s choice for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in a 2017 interview: “Believing that somehow Russia and the United States can be great partners in a global project and see eye-to-eye on some of the major issues of the day is only going to end up in disappointment. Or, to the extent we’re acquiescing in the Russian point-of-view on these issues, it’s going to result in a weaker United States, less capable of protecting our own national interests.”

That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for cooperation between the US and Russia in a Biden administration. Biden, once he is sworn in, will have just 15 days to extend New START, the last of the major nuclear arms control agreements between the US and Russia. The Trump administration had refused to extend without also involving China (which some saw as a way to effectively run out the clock on New START, since China showed no intention of joining talks). Biden has said that he will extend the treaty.

Given the time constraints, it would need to be a straight extension, but at least the five-year extension would give both the US and Russia time to talk about the kind of agreement they’d like to see in the future – and at least one area in which the US and Russia are still talking. The US rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, of which Russia is a signatory, could be another.

That’s important, because spheres in which actual communication takes place between the two countries are limited. There are, in addition to arms control, some issues on which Russia and the US do still communicate and cooperate – chief among them the Arctic – but they are few and far between.

Lack of potential for communication and cooperation will be one challenge for the Biden administration in US-Russia relations. But another major one will be how to deter unwanted Russian behaviour while sending a clear message on what it is, exactly, that the US actually wants.

Consider, for example, sanctions on Russia. Sanctions were a favourite tool during the Trump administration – by Congress as well as the president – but the intended aims of the sanctions are, at present, muddied.

There are currently sanctions on Russia that are meant to name and shame; sanctions that are meant to drive a wedge between the oligarchic ruling class and the Kremlin; sanctions that are meant to either make Russia leave Crimea or stop further invasion into eastern Europe; sanctions that are meant to deter Russia from poisoning people on foreign soil; and sanctions that are meant to protect the US financial system.

US officials are unlikely to stop using sanctions against Russia. But if the aim of them is not clear, then Russia could not change its behaviour even if it wanted to. And if sanctions continue to be applied without a change in Russian behaviour, then they reveal themselves to be ineffective, meaning that the US has one fewer way to try to shape the relationship with Russia.

The Biden administration will demonstrate very early on, both with New START and with how it chooses to respond to the massive hack, how it intends to work with Russia – and whether it can find a way to work with Russia at all.

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