Why the Kremlin May Be Rooting for Biden

Most Russians are afraid a President Biden would bring a chill in relations, but insiders hold a more nuanced view.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
U.S. President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 19 and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony in Jerusalem on Jan. 23.
U.S. President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 19 and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony in Jerusalem on Jan. 23.
U.S. President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 19 and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony in Jerusalem on Jan. 23. JIM WATSON, EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

MOSCOW—In Russia, the U.S. presidential election has become a national obsession. Ordinary people who rely on state-controlled television as their main source of information have seen the topic pop up every day on multiple talk shows. Among the elite, the duel between U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has become the favorite topic of conversation at fancy restaurants and in the corridors of power.

The prevailing view is that a victory for Biden would be bad for Russia, because a Democratic administration is expected to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow as punishment for its bad behavior—first and foremost, for its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This view is widely shared by pro-Kremlin pundits, senior officials and the executives of state-owned enterprises, and is even promoted by the few remaining independent Russian media outlets such as the Bell newsletter, a daily staple in the information diet of the Russian upper-middle class.

A more nuanced view on Biden is held by some people working on U.S. issues in the Russian government. A president who is not tainted by suspicion of being a Russian asset—and who knows how to organize a normal process for national security discussions—will be able to restore some guardrails to the U.S.-Russia relationship and prevent further deterioration, those people argue. A President Biden would not be able to pay close attention to Russia, since he and his senior advisers will be overwhelmed by domestic issues and otherwise focusing on China. But a possible new Democratic administration appears to be open to retaining some pillars of the arms control regime and discussing rules of competition in cyberspace. And it could be more clear-eyed—and therefore skeptical—about the side effects and efficiency of sanctions as the United States’ major tool in Russia policy. Much will depend on who is put in senior positions such as secretary of state and national security advisor, and on the midlevel bureaucrats controlling the Russia portfolio.

MOSCOW—In Russia, the U.S. presidential election has become a national obsession. Ordinary people who rely on state-controlled television as their main source of information have seen the topic pop up every day on multiple talk shows. Among the elite, the duel between U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has become the favorite topic of conversation at fancy restaurants and in the corridors of power.

The prevailing view is that a victory for Biden would be bad for Russia, because a Democratic administration is expected to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow as punishment for its bad behavior—first and foremost, for its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This view is widely shared by pro-Kremlin pundits, senior officials and the executives of state-owned enterprises, and is even promoted by the few remaining independent Russian media outlets such as the Bell newsletter, a daily staple in the information diet of the Russian upper-middle class.

A more nuanced view on Biden is held by some people working on U.S. issues in the Russian government. A president who is not tainted by suspicion of being a Russian asset—and who knows how to organize a normal process for national security discussions—will be able to restore some guardrails to the U.S.-Russia relationship and prevent further deterioration, those people argue. A President Biden would not be able to pay close attention to Russia, since he and his senior advisers will be overwhelmed by domestic issues and otherwise focusing on China. But a possible new Democratic administration appears to be open to retaining some pillars of the arms control regime and discussing rules of competition in cyberspace. And it could be more clear-eyed—and therefore skeptical—about the side effects and efficiency of sanctions as the United States’ major tool in Russia policy. Much will depend on who is put in senior positions such as secretary of state and national security advisor, and on the midlevel bureaucrats controlling the Russia portfolio.

After U.S.-Russian relations nearly hit rock bottom on Trump’s watch, nobody in Russia believes that four more years of Trump could be good for Moscow. If Trump is reelected, the only silver lining will be the even deeper level of disarray in the Western alliance and U.S. disengagement from its partners that a second Trump term would likely bring. For the Kremlin, schadenfreude over the gradual demise of Pax Americana would simply sugarcoat the risks and downsides of Trump remaining in the White House.

Alexander Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Twitter: @AlexGabuev

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