The year 2020 will be remembered above all for the coronavirus pandemic and the multiple-tier consequences in which it resulted. Some of the most important international effects of the pandemic have been the degeneration of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry into a full-blown confrontation and the cooling of EU-China ties; America’s coronavirus disaster, which likely became the biggest contributing factor in Donald Trump’s failure to get reelected; and China’s successful containment of the disease and Xi Jinping’s growing confidence. For Russia, apart from the pandemic, which hit it very hard, 2020 has been a year of cabinet and constitutional changes, multiple challenges in the neighborhood, and the cooling of its relations with the European Union to the point of freezing.

This piece will address the impact of the U.S. election on Russia’s relations with Europe and China and, as a second-order consequence, on Russia’s emerging elite debate on foreign policy. The expectation is that Joe Biden’s victory is likely to lead to much more coordination between the United States and its European allies on their policies toward Moscow. Another assumption is that while the Biden administration will continue Trump’s policy of confrontation with China, its style and some elements might change, making room for a mini-détente with Beijing. The question the article poses is whether this dual change will make Russia soften its own approach toward the West and seek accommodation with it, or whether the result will be the opposite, pushing Moscow even closer into Beijing’s embrace. What makes this question particularly important is that the next four years, coinciding with the duration of the Biden administration, may be crucial for Russia’s political transition and its prospects of transformation.  

The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House will certainly change many things in U.S. foreign policy, but it will not undo all or even most of the underlying trends that brought Donald Trump into the White House in 2016. While Biden will resume America’s commitment to alliances, partnerships, and multilateral institutions, the United States will remain primarily—and increasingly—focused on itself. The issue is not only the divided nature and resulting dysfunctionality of the U.S. government, or polarization of American society that is not going away with Biden’s win, but the overriding need to defend U.S. global primacy in the face of China’s challenge. This means that Washington will continue to insist that its allies fully support the United States—as America supported them during the Cold War. Biden will employ a gentler manner than Trump, but toward a similar goal.  

On the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda, major power rivalry with China will continue to feature as the top international issue. Biden calls China America’s principal challenger. This is serious: Americans cannot imagine falling to the position of a number two power and will do their utmost to prevent this. Under Biden, the style of Washington’s policy toward Beijing might become more courteous, and limited accommodation might be reached on specific issues. However, even the rhetoric may not become much softer, given the Democrats’ commitment to democracy promotion (see Hong Kong), human rights (see the Uighurs in Xinjiang), and their emphasis on uniting the free world against the world’s autocrats (the idea of a Summit of Democracies). Meanwhile Russia, defined by Biden as a major threat rather than a major power competitor, will continue to be the subject of U.S. sanctions, with new ones likely to be added as Washington sees fit.

Biden’s personal view of Russia is that the country, essentially a kleptocracy, is in colossal decline; its one-commodity economy noncompetitive; its demographics abysmal; and even its military second-rate. It is a threat because of the Kremlin’s relentless effort to subvert Western democracies through election meddling, sow discord in Western societies with disinformation, and undermine Western institutions by playing on differences among their members. For Biden, this behavior by Moscow is not a result of U.S. mishandling of Russia, in particular of ignoring Russian security concerns over NATO’s expansion to its borders. The problem, in his view, lies within Russia. It is the takeover of the Russian state by “KGB thugs” and their ability to harness nationalism—with the United States as the enemy—as a means to keep themselves in power.  

True to his credentials as a democratic internationalist, President-elect Biden does not believe that Russia is doomed to continue in its present condition forever. He looks ahead to the day when the Putin regime will be toppled by the Russian people. Biden’s message to ordinary Russians, and particularly to what he calls Russia’s underground civil society, is: your enemy is your own kleptocratic regime and the oligarchy; America is your friend. Washington, of course, has sent such messages before. What makes Biden’s different is the timing. The forty-sixth U.S. president’s term, which begins next January, will overlap with the remainder of Vladimir Putin’s current one. Russia’s next presidential election is set for 2024. It is in the next couple of years that Putin will have to make a crucial decision about running again or nominating a successor. Either decision will be fateful, with wide-ranging consequences. Biden and his aides will hardly ignore Russia’s domestic developments, and will seek to impact them in a way that is favorable to U.S. policy objectives. 

One thing they will be working on is constraining Russia geopolitically. The United States and the European Union will continue to have policy differences, but under Biden they will be more united than before when it comes to Russia. The recent substantial hardening of the position of Berlin—and, to a degree, of Paris too—vis-à-vis Moscow will make this easier. In the short term, this will mean more joint sanctions and, for Europeans, a further reduction in technology transfers to Russia. Energy ties, the historical backbone of Europe-Russia relations, will take a big hit. The almost completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea is already threatened by legislation produced or prepared in the U.S. Congress. The Biden administration, albeit for somewhat different reasons than Trump’s, will probably continue to lean on Berlin to cancel the project. In the longer term, the key development is the European Union’s Green Deal plan for decarbonizing its economy, which is in sync with the Democratic Party’s plans for climate and energy policy. Given that China and Japan have intentions along the same lines, this strikes at the very foundation of Russia’s international business model.  

With the Kremlin having reached a very bleak conclusion on the prospects for Russia’s relations with the European Union, at least in the short term, Moscow’s reliance on non-Western partners should logically grow. In that category, Beijing is top of the list. If, however, the Biden administration, whose arrival was welcomed by the Chinese leadership, decides on a somewhat less hostile or at least less rude approach to China, the ever-pragmatic Chinese might be enticed to revert to the practice of de facto following U.S. sanctions on Russia, to protect their remaining—and still vast—interests in America. With the historic reconciliation between Japan and Russia initiated by the recently retired prime minister Shinzo Abe having run into a dead end, and India getting progressively closer to the United States because of New Delhi’s growing rivalry with Beijing, and the Arab Gulf States dependent on Washington for military protection, Russia could find the geopolitical environment far more inhospitable than it has been since the start of its present confrontation with the West. 

Faced with such a challenging domestic and international setting, Russia’s ruling elites are torn in opposite directions, based on their specific corporate interests. To simplify things somewhat, one faction, which includes influential figures among would-be political modernizers, systemic liberals, and business tycoons with global interests, insists that Russia has already made its point about its sovereignty vis-à-vis the West; that, with a newly rearmed military, it has bought sufficient security from the United States; and that continuation of the present confrontation will bring no new benefits and will only harm the country economically, leading to social unrest and potentially political upheaval. That leads this group to conclude that now is the time for at least a truce with the West, bought with Russian concessions, from Donbas and Syria to the secret services’ foreign activities and some domestic liberalization. 

The other faction, led by the security community and military chiefs, but including a number of civilians, rejects any notion of a surrender with honor and insists on resisting Western pressure and pushing back against it. Their argument is that a partial retreat could turn into a debacle, as the West, seeing Russia giving in, will demand ever more concessions, all the way to emasculating Russia completely. They also point out that what made Russia great in the past was its capacity to mobilize in the face of challenges; stand up to the world’s strongest powers; and, relying on national unity and guided by powerful ideas, build a strong domestic base, to be reckoned with by others. This group also sees the West in general, and the United States in particular, as being in decline; it counts on a new world order no longer dominated by the West, and sees Russia among its beneficiaries.    

For now, President Putin is holding the balance, keeping both groups in check and charting his own course that merges strength with flexibility. On the one hand, in response last month to a most probably planted question from a Chinese academic, he said he “could imagine” a Russo-Chinese military alliance, while adding that military cooperation between the two countries had already reached a high level of intimacy; on the other, he has more recently allowed the release pending trial of an American businessman held under house arrest on charges of an economic crime: a highly publicized case that had caused a furor among Westerners doing business in or with Russia. 

Make no mistake: no second perestroika is coming. There is no specter of a latter-day Gorbachev stalking the corridors of the Kremlin. The bulk of the Russian people, whatever their concerns and grievances with regard to the existing politico-economic system, are unlikely to embrace the United States as their ally, as Joe Biden would like to see. Yet President Biden will certainly challenge the Kremlin both domestically and geopolitically. To thwart that dual challenge, Russia needs to deal with its numerous vulnerabilities effectively before its adversary is able to exploit them. An elite overhaul focused on merit and accountability; a serious audit of domestic policies focusing on national solidarity; and a foreign policy audit based on a public consensus on national interests are definitely in order. The only question is whether Russia’s vulnerabilities will be repaired internally before they are exploited from the outside.      

This publication is part of the Sino-Russian Entente project carried out with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

  • Dmitri Trenin