Trump vs. Biden: Implication for the US-Russia Relations

By Lisa May, Alumnas of The Fletcher School at Tufts University

The U.S.-Russia relations are arguably at their lowest point since the Cold War. Back in 2016, Donald Trump pledged to improve bilateral relations with Russia, however, little substantial progress has been made. There has been no coherent U.S. policy towards Russia since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. If anything, the relationship between the two countries has worsened and become even more unstable. Although President Trump frequently praises President Vladimir Putin in his statements, the rest of the executive branch as well as U.S. legislators have been persistently pursuing tough policies towards Russia, including imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats. The U.S. National Security Strategy released in 2017 identified Russia as one of the challengers threatening the United States and its allies.

On November 3, the incumbent President Donald Trump will face former Vice President Joe Biden, who is to be formally nominated as a Democratic candidate during the 2020 Democratic National Convention in the end of August. No matter which candidate prevails, it is unlikely that the state of U.S.-Russian relations will fundamentally change after the elections. Sanctions will in all likelihood stay in place, and the two countries will continue to have disagreements on issues such as Ukraine, Georgia, the Middle East, Venezuela, etc.

Trump’s reelection would to some extent benefit Russia, as it would lead to further polarization within American society, a continuing erosion of trust in the U.S. globally, a further deterioration of relations with U.S. allies, and an overall decline of American power abroad. If reelected, President Trump is not likely to personally condemn Russia’s ongoing human rights abuses as well as persecutions of members of the opposition, civil society activists and journalists. The Trump Administration downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, and it has recently denied receiving warnings about 2020 election meddling. Therefore, it is highly likely that Trump – should he defeat Biden – will continue to dismiss intelligence findings pointing to Russian interference in U.S. domestic affairs. However, while Trump’s reelection has obvious benefits for Russia, a lack of consistency and predictability in U.S. foreign policy makes the possibility for a constructive dialogue between Washington and Moscow virtually nonexistent and further exacerbates existing tensions. This unpredictability has proven problematic for Russia, as the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently criticized the United States for its spontaneous and disruptive decision to terminate sanctions waivers that had allowed Russian, Chinese, and European companies to conduct work designed to make it harder for Iranian nuclear sites to be used for weapons development. Zakharova characterized Washington’s actions as a threat to the international security.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory would solve the issue of unpredictability, as his foreign policy objectives are significantly clearer than those of the incumbent President. Clearer, however, does not mean more conducive to improvement in the bilateral relationship. Biden favors multilateralism in international affairs, and he has promised to restore relations with American allies, should he win the presidential race. The former Vice President is a longtime supporter of NATO and has been advocating for the alliance’s enlargement. In one of his interviews, Biden said he would provide more assistance to Ukraine, including weapons and military training. Lastly, Joe Biden has previously called for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission to thoroughly investigate the Russian interference into U.S. domestic affairs. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of issues that would lead to an even further decline in U.S.-Russian relations.

Although Biden is known for his sharp rhetoric towards the Kremlin – in 2016, he even called Putin a dictator – there is one specific area of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia that emerges should Biden emerge victorious. And this area is strategic stability. The former Vice President pledged to extend the New START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation, which is set to expire on February 5, 2021. New START remains the only accord constraining U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, following the American withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) in August 2019. President Putin stated back in December that Russia is open to extending the agreement “without any preconditions.” When it comes to the Trump Administration, it remains unclear whether it would extend the agreement. Trump has previously argued that the Treaty needs to be broadened to include China. Otherwise, Washington might allow the New START Treaty to expire. Although bringing China into a nuclear arms control framework is desirable in the long run, extending New START should not be contingent upon Chinese participation. Beijing is unlikely to join the agreement, given a large disparity between the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and those of the U.S. and Russia.

In conclusion, the overall state of the U.S.-Russia relations is not likely to change substantially after the U.S. presidential election, no matter the outcome. Perhaps the best approach and the most fundamental challenge at the same time is to find a sustainable balance between cooperation and competition and to continue a conversation in the areas where it is still possible. After all, agreements of the lowest common denominator are better than no dialogue at all.

This piece was republished from Era Institute.

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