Team Biden’s Russian Policy: Major Differences From Trump’s Strategy

Trump’s impulsive team has been replaced by career bureaucrats. A single entity will emerge in the United States, which can be responsible for its words and fulfil agreements; no one inside the apparatus will sabotage them. The new administration will deter Russia in a more systematic way, but without senseless tensions and unilateral steps. Russian policy towards the US can be planned for a longer horizon, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

We can assume that with the change of the US administration, American policy towards Russia will undergo significant changes. There are several reasons for this.

First, over the past four years, US policy toward Russia has been a product of inter-party struggles. The Democrats have used the “Russia probe” as an instrument against President Donald Trump. Now that the new administration is in the White House, this is no longer necessary. Trump attempted to implement an institutional coup in American politics, but did so using means that failed to suit his purposes. The Democrats responded: first with investigations in Congress, then by stimulating the Russiagate campaign, and twice by attempting impeachment. The importance of the Russian issue in American politics was speculative, but now its importance is declining. Russia is no longer the main issue of US domestic policy.

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Second, an impulsive Trump has been replaced by system-oriented professionals. Trump’s impulsiveness and self-centeredness often found expression in concrete foreign policy moves. For example, demonstrative pressure on North Korea, Syria, Iran, China and Venezuela or economic pressure against those who cannot be forced through force — Russia, Turkey, and the US’ NATO allies. He pursued a unilateral withdrawal from treaties and organisations, for example, the Paris Climate Agreement, NAFTA, INF Treaty, the “nuclear deal” with Iran, etc.

Trump did not know how to create systems, unlike the previous Republican President George W. Bush. The revolving door for personnel under Trump was unprecedented — the administration set a record for the largest number of senior officials who changed their posts during any presidency. Trump fought not only with the opposing Democrats, but also with his own party members, and they responded with sabotage. Leaks, theft of documents, misinformation of the first person became the norm in the previous Republican administration. President Trump’s weak organisational skills allowed him to make only one significant foreign policy achievement — the normalisation of Israel’s relations with several Middle Eastern countries, and this was done through “bribery”. In general, it’s even good that Trump turned out to be less capable of systemic activity than George W. Bush, since the world remembers what the price was for implementing the strategy of “transforming the Greater Middle East” under Bush’s rule.

Ultimately, Trump’s impulsive team has been replaced by career bureaucrats. A single entity will emerge in the United States, which can be responsible for its words and fulfil agreements; no one inside the apparatus will sabotage them. The new administration will deter Russia in a more systematic way, but without senseless tensions and unilateral steps. Russian policy towards the US can be planned for a longer horizon.

The third factor is that the team that is now taking over foreign policy positions in the Biden administration has extensive experience working with Russia and has gone through a crisis in relations with it. President Biden himself and a number of the new cabinet ministers had already worked on Russia-related diplomacy during the Obama administration: Secretary of State Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, CIA Head Bill Burns, Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and others. These people took part in both the development of a “reset” in relations with Russia, and during the crises in Libya and Ukraine, which led to the collapse of this reset. They have no illusions about the possibilities of improving relations with Moscow, and the assessment of mutual interests will be more sober.

The teams around Obama and Biden initiated the Russiagate campaign, which was built around accusations of Russian interference in the internal affairs of the United States, but at the same time they understand the limits of Russian influence on American domestic politics.

They believe that Russia acted as a spoiler, and they themselves see the same role for themselves in Russian domestic politics.

At the same time, the new team will be absorbed in the internal political problems of the United States and, in theory, should exercise prudence in crises. I also admit that they will keep their allies from unnecessary provocations, as, for example, did Obama, stopping Israel from a missile strike on Iran at the end of his presidential term, or Biden, who in 2016 lambasted Ukrainian then-president Poroshenko for the provocation he organised on Ukraine’s border with Crimea. To be sure, US President Joseph Biden has already made a provocative statement regarding Vladimir Putin. Words will certainly be followed by deeds: the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance hints at provocations and operations in the “gray zone.”

Fourth, there is a rough gap between the Republican and Democratic administrations — there is an interruption of the initiatives and programmes of the Trump administration. Biden’s team is conducting an inventory of what happened under Trump in foreign policy in the field of sanctions, special operations and provocations. In some of these areas, changes are visible. For example, the lightning-fast extension of the New START deal or the reversed dynamics with Iran regarding the conditions for the return of the United States to the nuclear deal.

One way or another, the new administration will spend several months working out a new strategy aimed at simultaneously containing Russia by conducting “divertive” operations and attempts at engaging Moscow in cooperation. In the long term, the key goal of the United States is to include Russia in a system of relations that will deter China from eclipsing the US in the 21st century.

In other words, the main changes in American policy towards Russia will consist of a resumption of consistency and greater rationality. If earlier Russia was blamed for all the troubles, which, in the first place, meant Trump’s presidency, now there will be no grounds for that. Symptomatic is the appearance in the summer of 2020 of a letter from 103 leading American experts on Russia that the United States needs to revise the list of priorities in relation to Russia. The letter was addressed not to Russian colleagues, but to the American establishment itself, which was too enthusiastic about the “witch hunt” and put aside the question of why, in fact, the United States needs stable relations with Russia. Why, indeed?

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