international analysis and commentary

Biden-Putin: the possible contours of a “cold” working relationship


Joe Biden is soon to become the fifth US president to face Vladimir Putin and the first to enter the presidency without the expectation of improving relations with his Russian counterpart. Yet the possibility of a working relationship, albeit a cold one, cannot be completely ruled out precisely because the existing relationship is so bad that few illusions about partnership between the two countries remain. And, interestingly enough, Biden’s immediate policy priorities on arms control, Iran and climate all line up with Russian (as well as international) preferences.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin


The baseline expectation of Biden’s Russia policy is that the differences between the two countries and the scar of the 2016 electoral interference will result in a punitive policy framework. A whole host of policy issues (Georgia and Ukraine wars, Crimean annexation, Syrian intervention, poisoning of regime opponents) and the pervasive mistrust between the two sides have resulted in the official designation of Russia as a chief rival and challenger to the United States. In addition, noted Biden campaign surrogates such as Michael Carpenter and former Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul have engaged in harsh anti-Putin rhetoric. Plus, the selection of several individuals to agency review teams who participated in the construction of the Russia sanctions regime suggest that the people surrounding Biden will provide a steady stream of hawkish advice on Russia.

As outlined by longstanding Russia expert Angela Stent in her review of post-Cold War US-Russia relations, “The Limits of Partnership”, every incoming American president since the end of the Cold War has looked forward to improving relations with Russia. It is less because Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Trump were well disposed toward Russia’s national interests, but because each incoming president had a core foreign policy interest (democratization, anti-terrorism, non-proliferation and retrenchment, respectively) that relied upon some level of Russian assistance for success. The pattern of that cooperation has been the American side touts the potential for partnership, both sides relax tensions to find relatively easy areas of cooperation, particularly when they fulfill US policy objectives, and then the American president moves on, limiting reciprocity and leaving Putin fuming.

From the 2016 election to the most recent one, the US-Russia relationship has nearly collapsed. It is impossible to know just how much of a difference Russian interference made in that election, but in terms of narratives, the plan worked a little too well. Donald Trump was unable to create a pro-Russia coalition in Congress to forge the cooperation with Putin that would make other policy objectives attainable.

Throughout his time in office, it appeared that the US government was pursuing two diametrically opposed Russia policies: Trump’s, which wanted a sort of unilateral cooperation, and the rest of the political establishment’s, which wanted unmitigated confrontation. Even the policy areas where Trump pursued anti-Russia policies, such as the Open Skies Initiative, the INF nuclear weapons treaty, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction, could be more efficiently explained as decisions to put America First: They were the policy options that lifted constraints on American actions or privileged American economic interests.

Biden has stated that upon taking office he will reverse Trump’s actions that in turn had directly disavowed Barack Obama’s policy achievements: re-enter the Paris Climate Accords, rejoin the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, and renew the START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. Those are all top-line policies in line with Russian preferences because they align with goals of international cooperation on transnational threats.

Beyond those policies, Biden might be reasonably expected to “Build Back Better” (as his campaign slogan suggested) through renewing America’s commitment to NATO, treating morality and values as tools of US foreign policy, and pursuing American entry into regional trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and possibly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

President-elect Joe Biden during the 2020 electoral campaign


That implies emphasizing democracy and human rights as goals of US foreign policy and buttressing allies as the mechanism to do that. That will annoy Putin and his sensitivity to outside interrogation of elections in Russia, but it should not surprise him as it would be the restoration of traditional American policies towards Russia. Championing allies and values would have the effect of treating Russia as Biden is likely to treat China: a rival who will be defeated or changed by activating the aspirations of individuals and civil society within the target state by showing them what they are missing.

Biden has called himself “a transitional figure” because he views his time in office as repairing the societal divisions pursued by President Trump and damage done to America’s standing abroad to leave his successor, whoever that may be, in a better position. Between his immediate objectives and his restoration of traditional elements of American diplomacy, there is plenty to vex Putin without needing to make Russia an object of punishment.

The early signs indicate that Biden will break with his predecessors by pursuing policies that do not require Russian participation to succeed, and that might be the policy that serves Biden’s objectives, even at the cost of disappointing many Democratic partisans.