The Future of US-Russia Relations Post-2020

The Future of US-Russia Relations Post-2020

For half a decade, the spectral presence of Russia has haunted US politics and caused concern on both sides of the aisle. What does the future hold for the complicated relationship between Moscow and Washington?

With the Democratic Biden-Harris presidential ticket comfortably edging ahead of Donald Trump and winning the 2020 elections, President Putin has much to worry about. The Biden administration will likely advance a tougher stance on rampant Russian aggressiveness than his Republican predecessor. Biden will implement a series of severe measures to restrict Russian efforts to manipulate US politics and Western elections, he will impose sanctions to disincentivise Russian involvement in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and he will restore America’s alliances with the EU and NATO to present a united front against the Kremlin.

However, if the Republican party manages to hold control of the US Senate – which is currently split between 48 Republican seats and 48 Democratic seats – the GOP may lobby against Biden’s sanctions much like President Trump did during his first mandate. 

Biden: a Modern Cold Warrior

Biden’s foreign policy approach is rooted in the belief in American leadership, exceptionalism and centrality in the world order. His rhetoric often highlights a desire to promote liberal democracy across the world, to maintain friendly relations with supranational institutions, and to strengthen alliances with US allies. Critically, unlike President Trump, Biden hopes to restore a US-led world order through which his administration will influence global affairs.

His liberal internationalism goes hand in hand with his disdain for Russia’s authoritarian politics and its attempts at sowing divisions within the US and American allies.

Biden has indeed been vocal about his disapproval of Russian autocracy and corruption: he made disparaging comments about the Kremlin, he called Putin a “dictator”, and he strengthened ties with Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and Donbass. In 2011, Biden’s aversion to Putin’s illiberal practices was epitomised by his statement that he should not run for a third term and finally culminated when he allegedly told Putin: “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul”. 

As President, experts presume that Biden will impose harsher sanctions on Moscow than his Republican predecessor: he had already urged the Trump administration to continue sanctions in 2017 and he played a significant role in convincing European countries to impose them following the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. In fact, the apparent 2020 Democratic victory has sunk the Russian Ruble to unprecedented lows as the markets anticipate Biden-mandated sanctions.

Biden Ruble

Credit: Al Jazeera 

Moreover, it seems likely that the Biden administration – in the spirit of multilateral partnerships with Western democracies – will establish a renewed, Western anti-Russian front with US allies (particularly the EU) who are also growing concerned about the Kremlin’s efforts to sabotage Western democracy and its participation in proxy wars

Lastly, Biden has often spoken in favour of NATO and he may strengthen the military alliance in an effort to showcase strategic advantage against Putin. In fact, both the US and the EU have consistently added new member states to NATO and recently expanded both the size and scope of NATO military exercises across Russia’s neighbouring countries, to which Russia has responded with frequent – and reckless – harassment, hacking and spying of NATO and American aircrafts and ships.

Biden could very likely play Russia’s retaliation in his own favour by lobbying for pro-Western governments to join NATO – particularly Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia has always opposed. He will also likely pursue more war games in eastern Poland, the Baltics and the Black Sea region and flex his muscles right in front of Russia’s borders.

As such, relations between Washington and Moscow are set to grow even more hostile and frosty than during the Trump era.

For its part, Russia ran an aggressive campaign to denigrate the Democratic nominee and to widen partisan divides in US politics through social media and propaganda, which suggests the Kremlin also expects growing hostilities and friction from Biden’s America.

A Republican Senate: the Threat of Filibuster 

Though the Democratic party currently boasts a majority in Congress and a Democratic President Elect, control of the Senate hangs in the balance with exactly 48 seats on both sides of the aisle. The balance of power in the US Senate won’t be determined until January 2021, when Georgia will hold run-off elections for both its seats. 

If Republicans manage to hold control of the Senate for another four years, they may continue their tit-for-tat strategy and tradition of filibustering Democrats’ bills, including foreign policies against Russia.

Crucially, the GOP has a deeply ambivalent relationship with Russia, and Biden’s White House has reasons to worry about Republicans opposing strong retaliation against Putin. In fact, compared to the Democratic party the Trump Administration often seemed in favour of developing friendly talks with Moscow, and Trump even sided with Russia after Putin refuted claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, despite evidence to the contrary.

Republicans have also been far less vocal than Biden about Putin’s efforts to dismantle a US-led world order; in that regard, Trump espouses a similar view as his Russian enemy. In fact, when vocalizing his disdain for NATO, Trump went as far as to say that Russia would be a better ally in the fight against terrorism.

Moreover, Republicans have been quickly eroding US-Russia anti-nuclear proliferation peace. Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 before announcing this year that he will reconsider America’s commitment to the Open Skies Treaty. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between Russia and the US, signed by Obama in 2010, is also due to expire in February 2021: while Russia has stated its willingness to extend it, Republicans have not.

Whilst restoring nuclear peace will likely be at the top of Biden’s security agenda, it seems unlikely that the GOP will side with him, and they may use their Senate majority as political leverage against him.

However, Trump’s White House and Trump’s Congress often appeared to be out of step when it comes to Russia. The irony is that despite Trump’s openness to Russia and his supposed fascination with Vladimir Putin, his administration has often imposed a number of sanctions against Russia in response to cyber-attacks, election interference and armed violence in Ukraine. Trump also approved the dispatch of the largest convoy of lethal arms to Ukraine since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, and he has worked to both undermine the expansion of Russian gas pipelines in Europe and strengthen some of Russia’s European neighbors through arms sales

Overall, the GOP’s stance on Russia has been profoundly – and confusingly – contradictory: though Trump claimed that “no one has ever been tougher to Russia” than him, for the last four years the Kremlin has ultimately exploited Republicans’ apparent unwillingness to confront Putin and to present a strong stance on Russia. After all, since 2016 the Russians have been able to interfere in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and across the Baltic Sea without worry of US retaliation, and they will likely continue to do so if Biden does not advance a tougher stance.

As such, it appears that if the GOP maintains its control of the US Senate they may lobby against Biden’s openly hostile and frosty approach to Russia and stall any assertive intervention against Putin’s interference. 

Conclusion: a Second Cold War

To conclude, it emerges that further deterioration of US-Russia relations is to be expected regardless of whether Republicans will hold onto their majority in the Senate. On one side of the aisle, Biden’s foreign policy agenda is set to include heavy sanctions and the expansion of NATO against authoritarian rule, including Russia’s. Driven by a belief that Putin is attacking the very foundation of Western democracy and the structure of the international liberal order,  Biden is likely to spend the majority of his time abroad restoring US leadership on the world stage and combating authoritarian governments such as the Kremlin. 

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans’ failure to take Moscow’s attacks against Western democracies seriously will likely continue. In fact, President Trump shifted the GOP’s geopolitical focus beyond Russia and towards China, the rising threat to US supremacy. Conclusively, Republicans –  who are still strongly aligned with Trump and his geopolitical strategies –  could very well squash Biden’s dreams of assertion against Russia in the Senate.

Categories: International, Security

About Author