The Biden Administration's Policy toward Russia

Taisuke Abiru
Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

US-Russian Relations in the Trump Administration Era

The 2016 US presidential election winner was Republican candidate Donald Trump who praised Russia and President Vladimir Putin. At that time, there were some voices in Russia hoping for an improvement in US-Russian relations that had deteriorated since the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis. This, however, did not materialize.

Rather, the issue of Russia's meddling in the US presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign ("Russia-gate") emerged around the time when the Trump administration took office. In August 2017, the US Congress enacted a bill to strengthen sanctions against Russia that prohibits the president from unilaterally lifting or easing economic sanctions against Russia without congressional approval. The United States and Russia gradually entered a confrontational mode. From the end of 2017 to the beginning of 2018, the Trump administration released the "National Security Strategy" and the "National Defense Strategy." These strategic documents defined Russia, along with China, as a "revisionist power" hostile to the US-led world order.

Furthermore, even the nuclear arms control regime, in which the United States and Russia are considered to have common interests since the Cold War era, was on the verge of dismantlement as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Convention (INF Treaty) expired, while the February 2021 expiration of the Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) neared.

It was Russia's good fortune that the US President at the time was Donald Trump, who is not interested in issues such as democracy and human rights. He did not become actively involved in democratization movements in former Soviet Union countries such as Ukraine and Belarus; he worsened relations with Germany and other US allies in Europe. Furthermore, during the four years of the Trump administration, American democratic institutions, which constitute the basis of US global soft power, were weakened, and the division of American society has deepened.

Meanwhile, US-China relations also deteriorated dramatically under the Trump administration, which, in turn, accelerated the move to strengthen Russia-China strategic ties that emerged after the Ukrainian Crisis. In September 2018, China's People's Liberation Army first participated in "Vostok 2018," a major Russian military strategic exercise. The PLA consecutively participated in the strategic drills "Tsentr 2019" in September 2019 and "Kafkas 2020" in September 2020.

In July 2019, Chinese and Russian strategic bombers conducted their first-ever joint patrol over the Sea of Japan. Three months later, in October 2019, President Putin announced at an international conference that Russia was helping China deploy an early missile warning system. 1

In addition, in June and October of the same year, Putin twice called the Russia-China relationship an "alliance-like relationship." In November of the same year, however, he explicitly said there was no plan for a Russia-China military alliance. 2

In October 2020, however, President Putin went a step further to state that "theoretically, it is quite possible to imagine such a thing," referring to the possibility of a Russia-China military alliance. 3 In November of the same year, Chinese and Russian strategic bombers conducted, for the second time since last July, joint patrols over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.

President Biden's View of Putin and Russia

What will the Biden administration's policy toward Russia look like? In a CBB interview on October 26, 2020, toward the end of the US presidential election, Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden was asked, "Which country is most dangerous to the United States?" He replied, "Russia is the biggest threat right now in terms of destroying our security and our alliances. The biggest competitor is China." While the Trump administration regarded both China and Russia as "strategic competitors," Biden deliberately changed the wording to say that Russia is "the biggest threat," while calling China "the biggest competitor." To understand what Biden meant by this, it is necessary to know his views on Putin and Russia.

In the January/February 2018 issue of the Foreign Affairs magazine, Biden co-authored with Michael Carpenter an essay titled "How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies." 4 In the paper, he writes as follows:

"Today, the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has launched a coordinated attack across many domains --- military, political, economic, informational --- using a variety of overt and covert means."

"To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia's borders to attack what it perceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy." The Kremlin perceives three distinct threats from Western democracy: (1) US intention of "pursuing regime change in Russia", (2) "Western support for democratic reforms among Russia's neighbors" that will undermine Russia's patronage networks, and (3) "democratic transformation in Russia's neighborhood" that "would serve as a powerful counterexample to Moscow's kleptocratic and authoritarian rule and would delegitimize its authority over the long run."

The Kremlin relies on the tools of disinformation and cyberattacks to overthrow democracy in Western Europe and the United States.

"The manipulation of energy markets is another important tool that Russia uses for coercion and influence peddling."

Russia has weaponized and exported corruption. It provides benefits to forces working abroad in favor of the Kremlin. "Money laundering is another example of how the Kremlin seeks to infect Western democracies with the corruption virus."

"Washington and its partners ... must agree to impose meaningful costs on Russia when they discover evidence of its misdeeds."

On the other hand, the United States and "Russia have a mutual obligation to maintain strategic stability. That means not only regulating the development and deployment of strategic weapons but also communicating clearly to avoid misunderstandings about what each side perceives as a strategic threat."

It is not hard to imagine that in writing the essay, Biden must have remembered Russia's meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Unlike China, Russia will not become a nation that can compete with the United States for world leadership in the medium to long term. But in the short term, Russia could use various tools to intervene in the democratic systems of Western countries and damage them. In this sense, Biden's remarks in the above interview indicate that Russia could be "the biggest threat" from the short-term perspective.

The Biden Administration's Anticipated Policy toward Russia

The Biden administration's most urgent task is to rebuild the American system of democracy and regain global soft power. It will likely develop a foreign policy emphasizing values such as democracy and human rights. This direction in the Biden administration's foreign policy is discernible from its proposal to hold a global Summit for Democracy, which will focus on the three primary issues of fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. 5

From the perspective of highlighting European allies, emphasis will be placed on repairing relations with Germany, which deteriorated during the Trump administration era. The Biden administration will also actively engage with the democratization process of former Soviet Union countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

Victoria Nuland previously served as an advisor to Vice President Cheney, US ambassador to NATO under the Bush Jr. administration, and as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs under the Obama administration at the outbreak of the Ukrainian Crisis. Her nomination to the number three post in the Department of State also suggests the direction of the Biden administration's foreign policy.

Suspicions have surfaced that the Russian authorities were involved in the attempted assassination of Russian anti-government activist Alexei Navalny that occurred last year. Navalny was taken into custody by the Russian authorities at the airport after just returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recuperating. This triggered anti-government demonstrations that raged in Moscow and other major cities. The Biden administration will actively release messages on Russia's primary domestic issues.

There is, of course, no prospect of lifting or easing economic sanctions against Russia by the United States or the EU. Rather, there is a good chance for additional sanctions to be imposed on Russia in connection with the Navalny issue.

However, the Biden administration is well aware that Russia remains the largest nuclear weapons state along with the United States, that both countries bear a special obligation of maintaining global strategic stability, and that the United States must maintain dialogue channels with Russia to avoid unforeseen contingencies. Therefore, the Biden administration will unconditionally extend for five years the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) scheduled to expire in February 2021. To the end, the Trump administration was reluctant to do so.

There is also room for US cooperation with Russia in some multilateral framework if the Biden administration attempts to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which the Obama administration signed in July 2015, but from which the Trump administration announced US withdrawal in May 2018. Incidentally, communication channels to avoid conflicts are maintained between US and Russian forces in Syria.

In any case, there is no prospect for a significant improvement in US-Russian relations under the Biden administration; Russia's tendency to strengthen its strategic relationship with China will remain unchanged. As mentioned earlier, in October 2020, President Putin took a step further to speak about the possibility of concluding a Russia-China military alliance: "Theoretically, it is quite possible to imagine such a thing," but, presumably, he stated this with the 2020 US presidential election in mind.

How will the Biden administration address the strengthening of the strategic relationship between Russia and China?

As mentioned earlier, the Biden administration's policy toward Russia will be much stricter than that of the Trump administration, which paid little attention to democracy and human rights issues. Will the Biden administration not be concerned with the strengthening of the strategic relationship between Russia and China, which emerged after the Obama era Ukrainian Crisis and rapidly evolved throughout the four years of the Trump administration?

There is a report worthy of attention that will answer this question: "Navigating the Deepening Russia-China Partnership," released on the website of the US think tank Center For a New American Security (CNAS) on January 14, 2021. 6 Andrea Kendall-Taylor, CNAS Senior Fellow and former intelligence analyst on Russia and Eurasia at the CIA and the National Intelligence Council, is one of the two co-authors of the report. When the CNAS report was published, she was about to be appointed as Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council under the Biden administration. 7

The basic premise of this report is a recognition of the current situation where Russia and China are deepening cooperation in the four areas of 1) defense, 2) democracy and human rights, 3) technology and cyberspace, and 4) the economy. The report notes that if Russia-China cooperation in areas 1) and 2), in particular, is left unchecked, it could have a significant impact on the US-China struggle for world leadership.

Traditionally, debates over US response to the closeness of Russia and China have fallen into the following two broad categories:

(1) Mutual distrust between Russia and China is deep-rooted, and the degree of closeness is limited. There is no need for a special response. 8

(2) To drive a wedge between Russia and China, the United States should try to bring Russia into the US camp against China just as President Nixon succeeded in bringing China into the US camp against the Soviet Union during the Cold War (a reverse Nixon strategy). 9

According to this report, a response based on (1) is wrong, as the Russia-China strategic relationship has already evolved beyond the limited level envisaged in the past. On the other hand, the report dismisses such simple approaches as the reverse Nixon strategy as incapable of dealing with this problem. The authors, therefore, recommend that together with its democratic allies and partners, the United States should prepare for and confront the possible threats that the Russia-China alliance would pose to US interests and values, while proceeding with preparations to capitalize on a rift that in the long run will widen between Russia and China.

Specifically, the authors propose comprehensive approaches comprising a mixture of hard and soft measures: (a) Change Russia's Calculus, (b) Monitor and Plan for Growing Russia-China Cooperation, (c) Create Headwinds, and (d) Exploit Fissures. In the section "Exploit Fissures," they state, "Russia is also likely to look to countries such as India and Japan to hedge against its growing reliance on Beijing --- relationships that have the potential to upset Beijing," while going so far as to recommend "allowing Russia to sell arms to India and Vietnam."

January 14, 2021, when this report appeared on the CNAS website, was the day following the day when the media reported that Kurt Campbell, CNAS Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors, would be appointed as Indo-Pacific coordinator at the National Security Council. 10 There is a likelihood that Campbell has much to do with the contents of the report.

If this is the case, the Biden administration, with its diplomatic orientation toward democracy and human rights, will adopt tough policies toward Russia regarding Europe, the former Soviet Union countries, and its internal affairs. In the meantime, it could give special consideration to the development of Russia's bilateral relations with such countries as Japan, India, and Vietnam to diversify Russia's interests in the long run beyond China into other parts of the Indo-Pacific region.

However, it is unclear to what extent these two seemingly contradictory directions of the Biden administration's diplomacy toward Russia will be coordinated inside the administration and will then come into practice. This will warrant our careful attention.

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