How Biden Would Change U.S.-Russia Relations

The days of sucking up to Vladimir Putin will be over.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, you can expect a 180-degree turn in U.S.-Russia relations. The days of sucking up to Vladimir Putin will be over. The United States will no longer leave itself open to brazen Russian election interference, nor will it be at the mercy of an erratic president’s off-the-books diplomacy and misguided stabs at eliminating sanctions on Moscow. At the same time, doors will be open for constructive dialogue.

In other words, Putin may finally meet his comeuppance in an American leader steeped in statesmanship and steeled by hard-ball Cold War diplomacy. “The Russians don’t want me to be the nominee,” Biden told CBS recently. “They spent a lot of money on bots on Facebook, and they’ve been taken down, saying Biden is a bad guy. They don’t want Biden running.”

For good reason. In stark contrast with President Trump—who didn’t know the difference between the Baltic states and the Balkans, or that India bordered China—Biden brings depth and breadth in international relations. He spent 36 years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, half that time as its chairman. And he counts a host of world leaders and statesmen as good friends. Half of his Senate tenure also coincided with the Cold War. In those years, the Delaware senator attacked the Soviet Union’s human rights policies and expansionism while taking a leading role in promoting arms reduction negotiations.

In a 2018 essay in Foreign Affairs, co-written with Russia expert Michael Carpenter, Biden continues with this carrot-and-stick approach toward Moscow. The U.S. must take the lead with its allies, he writes, to “impose costs on Russia for its violations of international law and other countries’ sovereignty,” including maintaining sanctions. He also calls for maintaining talks with the Kremlin and holds a hard line on Russian election interference.

Michael Haltzel, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Biden when he was a senator, told me that, as president, Biden would return to managing U.S.-Russia relations in close coordination with NATO allies. That said, Biden “wouldn’t tolerate Russian election meddling.” Based on Haltzel’s experience working with Biden, he said the former vice president’s priority issues would likely also include challenging Putin’s interference in Ukraine, the Balkans, Syria and elsewhere, as well as reviving talks on strategic arms limitations. “Biden understands we must be tough with Putin,” Haltzel said.

Biden’s approach to Russia should be seen in the context of an evolving Democratic modest retreat from the post–Cold War neoliberal consensus favoring globalization, writes Brookings foreign policy scholar Thomas Wright: “Biden’s foreign policy certainly will not be revolutionary, but if the 2021 Democrats have their way, it may bring about a quiet reformation.” Democrats are worried about rising authoritarianism, including in Russia. Should Moscow try to meddle with American elections again, they would have no aversion to hitting back hard with “tough, new sanctions,” according to Wright. In fact, they might just demand highly punitive measures.

Like many of us, Moscow was caught off guard during Biden’s comeback in the presidential race after the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries. The Russians appear to be boosting Sanders’s campaign. They view the self-declared democratic socialist as an easy foil to Trump.

But now, the Kremlin seems to have come to grips with the new reality. The Russian propaganda outlet, RT, is framing Biden’s victory as one of “party elites against rank-and-file voters.” It paints Biden as weak. “It is all but guaranteed that it would be Obama—not Biden—calling the shots from the Oval Office,” RT wrote.

One can imagine that Kremlin siloviki (someone who has entered politics from the security services, like Putin) are having major heartburn contemplating a Trump defeat at the hands of a competent president-elect, who views Putin with anything but rose-colored glasses. So far, Putin himself has remained mum on Biden. He and his advisers must be calibrating.

Many Russian oligarchs have their own personal reasons to worry. “Their children and grandchildren live and study in the U.S. The threat to block their accounts and send them back home very much concerns Putin and his entourage,” U.S.-based dissident Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova told me, highlighting a facet of the relationship too often overlooked by the West.

Institutionally, a Biden administration will undoubtedly resurrect traditional forms of diplomacy and policy process. It would empower once again the agencies chiefly responsible for conducting and coordinating U.S. foreign and national security policy around the world, namely the State Department and National Security Council. And it would pay close heed to the intelligence community.

In the past, Biden has usually favored soft power over military intervention. His first task, therefore, should be to rebuild the institutions that suffered severe damage under Trump. Crucially, that will mean placing respected experts in important roles and restoring deliberative policy formulation. That should be simple enough. While Trump has a resentment for expertise, Biden has a reverence for it.

As a consequence, the American people can expect to hear the truth and honest assessments coming out of the White House, which will have implications for Putin. Gone will be the days of a U.S. president blaming election interference on “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.