Election 2020

America’s Dysfunctional Russia Policy Is Unlikely to Improve Under Biden

A continued stalemate in Washington makes this a moment of great danger for Europe.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The United States’ Russia policy over the past four years has been profoundly dysfunctional. President Donald Trump has relished his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denigrated NATO, scuttled arms control agreements, and allowed Moscow to become an influential player again in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. He has refused to act on credible reports of Russia offering bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. A deeply alarmed U.S. Congress, meanwhile, has been ratcheting up ever tougher sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and for fomenting the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine. Three senators even wrote a nasty letter to the mayor of the German Baltic port town of Sassnitz, where the North Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia comes ashore, threatening him with reprisals.

The depth of the stalemate in Washington was illustrated this August, when two bipartisan groups of experienced Russia hands dueled it out in competing letters. One called for a renewal of nuclear arms control and diplomacy, combined with more flexible (read: fewer) sanctions; the other countered that, on the contrary, there needed to be less “pointless dialogue” and more “strong pushback.”

Emotions in Moscow regarding the most desirable outcome of the U.S. elections appear to be mixed.

The United States’ Russia policy over the past four years has been profoundly dysfunctional. President Donald Trump has relished his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denigrated NATO, scuttled arms control agreements, and allowed Moscow to become an influential player again in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. He has refused to act on credible reports of Russia offering bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. A deeply alarmed U.S. Congress, meanwhile, has been ratcheting up ever tougher sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and for fomenting the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine. Three senators even wrote a nasty letter to the mayor of the German Baltic port town of Sassnitz, where the North Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia comes ashore, threatening him with reprisals.

The depth of the stalemate in Washington was illustrated this August, when two bipartisan groups of experienced Russia hands dueled it out in competing letters. One called for a renewal of nuclear arms control and diplomacy, combined with more flexible (read: fewer) sanctions; the other countered that, on the contrary, there needed to be less “pointless dialogue” and more “strong pushback.”
Emotions in Moscow regarding the most desirable outcome of the U.S. elections appear to be mixed.

Chances are slim that the election will make U.S. Russia policy more coherent. A second term for Trump would presumably be an amplified version of the first (hard to imagine as that might be). He might bring back U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Europe, and attempt to make an ally of Russia against China. It could well be the end of NATO. Democratic candidate Joe Biden, in contrast, is known to be sharply critical of Putin: In a television interview last week, he referred to Russia as “the biggest threat to America.” Yet as much as Biden cherishes the United States’ alliances, as president he would be bogged down by domestic concerns. Abroad, he would be focused on China above all else.

Emotions in Moscow regarding the most desirable outcome of the U.S. elections appear to be mixed. A second dose of Trump would presumably tax the nerves of a Kremlin already wrongfooted by the pandemic, a tanking economy, and persistent protests in its regions. Putin seemed to concede as much when he defended the challenger’s son Hunter against accusations of dodgy business ties with Ukraine. Yet Biden’s remarks about Russia clearly rankled Putin’s speaker Dmitry Peskov, who accused the Democrat of spreading “absolute hatred.”

This is a moment of great danger for Europe—especially for the civil societies from the Balkans to Belarus still seeking to chart a westward course. Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 3 election, a much larger part (if not all) of the burden of regional security will fall to Europe, which urgently needs a common policy that addresses the risks and threats posed by Russia to the continent. If there is a sympathetic administration in Washington that is willing to support and collaborate with it, so much the better. If the administration is hostile, then the task is all the more urgent.

Constanze Stelzenmüller is a senior fellow and the Fritz Stern chair on Germany and transatlantic relations at Brookings. Twitter: @ConStelz

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