Election 2020

Putin Expects a Long Confrontation With America Under Biden

As Putin refuses to congratulate Biden, all eyes in the Kremlin are on the president-elect’s new team.

This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump talk at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump talk at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not congratulated U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, and will not do so until outgoing President Donald Trump’s legal battle in the U.S. courts is over. “We think it’s appropriate to wait until an official announcement on the outcome of the election is made,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained on Monday. Even after official congratulations are offered, the Kremlin expects a prolonged confrontation with the United States under the new Biden administration.

Not too many people in Russia’s corridors of power will miss the outgoing president, however. Despite Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward Moscow—and especially toward Putin—the United States and its European allies agreed on multiple rounds of economic sanctions against Russia during the Trump administration, and his signing of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act has set that regime in stone. Given the dominant views on Russia on Capitol Hill, the Kremlin believes that those sanctions are here to stay indefinitely. In addition, Trump took a wrecking ball to the U.S.-Russian arms control regime, further shrinking a bilateral agenda that had already become very sparse after the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014 and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The positive aspects of Trump’s presidency, from the Kremlin’s viewpoint, were the intensified domestic polarization in United States and Washington’s increasing estrangement from its allies.

There are also some positive aspects for Russia in the 2020 election and a Biden presidency. The election results have shown that the deep divisions in U.S. society are not going anywhere, so the new administration may well be consumed by domestic issues. The possibility of a Republican-dominated Senate also weakens the incoming administration. In addition, the long and painful election process and Trump’s attacks on it have provided boundless talking points for Russia’s domestic propaganda machine aimed at convincing ordinary Russians that their own system is far superior to the chaos of democracy.

Pragmatists in Putin’s government hope that Biden’s approach to future sanctions against Russia will be guided by strategy, not just a hostile attitude. They expect that sanctions will be deployed to punish Moscow for serious missteps, and will be calibrated to minimize side effects such as hurting the economic interests of major European allies or increasing Moscow’s dependence on China, which Biden has described as a major challenge for U.S. foreign policy. Finally, there is now a chance to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Biden has promised to do unconditionally.

This, however, is where the silver linings of a Biden presidency end—and the long list of Russian worries begins. Putin has a very negative personal view of the president-elect, fueled by Biden’s March 2011 trip to Moscow as vice president. At a meeting with a group of Russian opposition leaders, Biden reportedly said that Putin ought not to run for president again in 2012, and that he should instead allow then President Dmitry Medvedev, who had a good rapport with former President Barack Obama, to serve a second term. This remark, and the fact that it became public via the blog of the (later murdered) opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, infuriated Putin.

Then there are the tough views of Biden and his senior Russia advisors on Putin’s regime, which are well known and were expressed during the campaign on multiple occasions. Biden wrote in an article that he wants to focus his foreign-policy agenda on restoring global faith in democracy, and on fighting authoritarianism and corruption abroad. For the Kremlin, that smacks of future efforts to promote democracy and the risk of exposing the hidden wealth of Russian elites with ties to the regime. Finally, the Russian foreign-policy establishment is aware of the amount of anger that Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election has generated among American foreign-policy professionals, including some core members of Biden’s team, and is also aware of the resulting desire to punish the Kremlin and put a bigger price tag on bad behavior.

That said, the new administration is likely to focus on domestic issues and competition with China, and its precise policy toward Russia will be determined by the team that Biden brings in to take the controls of the U.S. national security machine. So Moscow’s judgment of what to expect from a Biden presidency depends largely on the final composition of the team in charge of U.S. foreign and Russia policy.

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

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