The outlook for US-Russia relations

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The outlook for US-Russia relations

Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the few world leaders who waited for the Electoral College confirmation of the 2020 US presidential election to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. We examine the likely trajectory of US-Russia relations in the next four years.

  • Bilateral relations will be more confrontational and US policy toward Russia will be more bipartisan than during the administration of President Donald Trump, as both Biden and the US Congress view Russia as a hostile adversary. 
  • Biden will maintain, and likely escalate, the existing sanctions regime against Russia – most immediately in response to a recent, large-scale cyber-attack on US government agencies. 
  • At the same time, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation will provide grounds for cooperation and lend some positivity to bilateral relations in 2021, though this will not be enough to reset relations. 

The view from Moscow

Russia’s hope that Trump would be able to improve bilateral relations and ease economic sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama (2009-17) went unfulfilled. Trump throughout his term oscillated between accommodation and condemnation of Russia and was never able to overcome staunch bipartisan hostility towards Moscow in Congress. Indeed, Congress early in Trump’s term enacted the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) specifically to prevent Trump from using his power of veto to lift sanctions on Russia. 

Putin’s decision to wait until after the US Electoral College vote to send his formal congratulations to Biden reflects his negative expectations about the trajectory of US-Russia relations under the new administration, as well as a likely interest in bolstering Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud.

Russia expects more sanctions from Biden and thinks that he will begin restoring the former transatlantic consensus that Russia’s attempts to undermine democratic institutions in other countries have to be contained, as well as to strengthen US relations with NATO. Russia is also concerned that Biden will revive US engagement in the post-Soviet region, where Trump has made few attempts to challenge Russian interests.  

Geopolitically, Moscow is worried that any future US-China rapprochement – however limited – could come at the expense of Russian interests. China may decide to increase imports of US oil and gas to send positive signals to Biden and may heed more to US sanctions in deciding on investment and technology cooperation with Russia. 

A prospective US-China detente would further marginalise Russia’s global influence in the G20, BRICS, or even the UN Security Council. Putin’s idea of gathering a summit of the five permanent members of the Security Council to discuss key global issues –which was endorsed by Trump – is likely to be rejected by Biden.

View from Washington

Russia’s concerns are justified: Biden views Russia as a hostile adversary and has frequently criticised it – and Putin personally – for its domestic and foreign policies. Moreover, Biden’s key foreign policy advisors – Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – have made clear their willingness to confront Russia. More broadly, Biden heralds a return to a more predictable and assertive US role in global affairs, following years of Trump’s retreat from multilateral diplomacy.

In 2021, the Biden administration is likely to take a harder line towards Russia, focusing on cyber security and election interference. Biden attributes a recent, sophisticated advanced persistent threat (APT) campaign targeting US government agencies – the full extent of which remains unclear – to Russia’s intelligence services and has pledged unspecified retaliation upon taking office. Further targeted sanctions – such as designating the SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence agency) – are almost certain, though more sweeping economic measures (such as cutting Russia off from the SWIFT banking network) remain unlikely given their disruptive impact on the US and its allies. The US may also take covert action (e.g., in the cyber domain) to increase deterrence. Biden has indicated that he plans to coordinate the US response with allies. 

Like most Democrats, Biden continues to blame Russia for allegedly interfering in the 2016 US election. Biden during the 2020 campaign also cited US intelligence assessments that Russia sought to “denigrate” his candidacy while promoting Trump’s. Against the backdrop of Biden’s democracy promotion agenda, disclosures or allegations in the coming months of Russian-sponsored attempts to impact the 2020 vote (or efforts to impact the 2022 midterm elections) could also trigger economic sanctions. 

The Biden administration will be more critical of Russia’s domestic politics. Trump has kept largely quiet on human rights issues in Russia, including when several EU states confirmed that Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family, the same agent used to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018. This will change under Biden, who condemned the poisoning and pledged to “hold the Putin regime accountable for its crimes”. 

One tool that Biden could use in response to Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok includes additional sanctions under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination (CBW) Act. Following the UK attack in 2018, the US banned bank purchases of foreign currency-denominated sovereign bonds from Russia. The threats of broad trade restrictions, the termination of existing export licences and waivers, further restrictions on bank transactions with the Russian government, a suspension of diplomatic relations, and the blocking of Russian air carriers from the US will all remain elevated in the next four years under the CBW Act.

Policies towards Russia’s near abroad

Biden is unlikely to attempt to prevent Congress from sanctioning Russia’s gas pipeline project Nord Stream II. However, it is unclear what impact such measures would have on the project given that construction is nearing completion and Germany has strongly reiterated that the pipeline should stay separate from politics. 

Biden is likely to take a tougher stance on Russia’s role in the Belarusian political crisis and the conflict in eastern Ukraine – albeit with a multilateral approach in cooperation with Canada, the EU and UK. 

Biden is likely to strengthen economic sanctions against Belarus (and potentially Russia), where longstanding President Alexander Lukashenko has refused to step down following his highly disputed re-election in August and has cracked down on large-scale anti-government protests. Biden is likely to expand economic sanctions especially in the event that Lukashenko’s government uses lethal force against protesters. However, Russia will remain the most influential actor in Minsk and will assert its role in Belarus in response to US pressure – either by backing Lukashenko or by overseeing a transition of power to a Russia-friendly replacement.

Russia will also remain the main power broker in eastern Ukraine, where continued conflict and destabilisation support its goal of preventing Kyiv’s migration towards NATO and the EU.

Some glimpses of hope

Still, while bilateral relations are likely to worsen, a more likely trajectory is one in which the US will take a more predictable, assertive approach to keeping Russia’s overseas pursuits in check on the one hand. On the other hand, Biden will likely acknowledge the importance of engaging Russia in key issues on both Biden’s and the global agenda, such as climate change, arms control, nuclear non-proliferation, and ending the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Biden will highly likely extend the New START Treaty, an agreement signed by the Obama administration in 2010 that limits the quantity of the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals, which is set to expire in February 2021. Both Biden and Putin have expressed interest in extending the agreement, while Trump refused to do so in a failed attempt to include China in the nuclear arms limitation talks. Biden is also likely to be more open to negotiating a mutual non-deployment of US and Russian intermediate missiles in Europe, following the collapse of the INF treaty under the Trump administration. Most European NATO members would support this move. 

These issues will provide grounds for cooperation and lend some positivity to bilateral relations in 2021. But they will not be enough to warrant a new reset in relations.


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