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Moscow didn’t have too much of a stake in the U.S. election: it assumed that, whether President Donald Trump or President-elect Joe Biden won, the U.S.-Russian confrontation would continue and probably grow more intense.

Despite Trump’s recurrent rhetoric about getting along with Russia, his administration has taken a hard stance toward Moscow. In the last four years, the United States has imposed no fewer than forty-six sanctions packages on Russia. Trump has canceled the INF Treaty, potentially opening the way for the United States to deploy fast-flying U.S. missile systems in Europe that would target Russia’s critical strategic assets at close range. And Trump’s White House took a hard line on extending the New START Treaty, the last major element of the arms control system. Meanwhile, U.S. troops in Europe have moved closer to the Russian border, even as U.S. warplanes and naval ships exercised closer to Russia’s frontiers and did so more often. What’s more, Trump leaned hard on Germany, urging it to cancel the almost completed gas pipeline project Nord Stream 2, the flagship of Moscow’s energy export policy.

Russia Has No Illusions About Biden

Weeks ahead of the vote, the Kremlin began to get ready for a Biden win. Russians have no illusions. The Democrats are determined to be even tougher on Russia than the outgoing administration. Sanctions are likely to continue as the prime instrument of U.S. Russia policy. Under Biden, they may get more targeted and strategic. With better communication between the United States and Europe, the West’s Russia policies will be better coordinated, ratcheting up pressure on Moscow. The Democratic administration will probably provide more military support to Ukraine and pay more attention to the standoff in Belarus. While Trump’s promotion of U.S. liquified natural gas in Europe challenges Russian energy interests in the short term, Biden’s policies, going broadly in the same green direction as those of the EU, sap at the foundation of Russia’s reliance on hydrocarbons as the backbone of its economy.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center from 2008 to early 2022.
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Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris are expected to criticize Russia’s domestic policies and practices with gusto and offer more support to anti-Kremlin elements. Biden, of course, supports a simple extension of New START, but arms control talks with his administration will probably be as tough as any in history. The positives of Biden’s accession include more predictability and hopefully a diminishing role for Russia as a focus of U.S. domestic politics. Yet, with all these concerns in mind, the Kremlin will not miss an opportunity to reach out to the Biden administration hoping to resume dialogue.

The Uncertain Rule of the Liberal Establishment

The election itself has confirmed to the Russian public that, while the U.S. political system is in a deepening crisis, U.S. political institutions continue to function. The chaos that many prophesied and some were looking forward to hasn’t happened. While giving extensive coverage to the U.S. election, Russian television networks concluded that U.S. election practices did not meet the standards that the United States uses while assessing elections in other countries. That may explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s delay in congratulating Biden on his victory. This is a political statement thinly disguised as waiting for the procedure to be finalized. The Kremlin does not expect Biden to be a strong leader, much less a successful reformer. In short, Russia is bracing for the uncertain rule of the liberal establishment, challenged by the pro-Trump forces that have held sway for the last four years.