Trump and Biden see Russia and particularly its president, Vladimir Putin, in diametrically opposed ways. Trump sees a strongman with whom he can make deals; Biden sees a reckless, cruel regime led by a dictatorial leader that is, by its very nature, opposed to American values and interests. The November election could well determine whether Russia becomes a US partner or a US enemy, with striking implications for Europe.

Trump on Russia

The Trump administration’s approach to Russia over the last three and half years has been a study in contradiction. In its details, the policy has broadly reflected the bipartisan consensus in Washington that Russia is a malign actor and a national security threat to the United States. Obama-era economic sanctions against Russia have remained in place and become even tougher. The administration has increased military assistance to Eastern Europe and sent arms to Ukraine. The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, released in 2017, identified Russia as a strategic competitor and a revisionist power that threatens the integrity of Western democracy.

But all of this has been undermined by the president himself. Trump has treated Putin and Russia with rare politesse, even deference. Unlike virtually every other world leader, Trump has refrained from criticising Putin personally and sided with him over the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election. Trump has advocated that the G7 readmits Russia and frequently opposed congressional efforts to sanction or otherwise crack down on the country for its various geopolitical sins. His recalcitrance forced a Republican Congress to take the unprecedented step of passing sanctions legislation that contains essentially no executive waiver. In Trump’s speech introducing the hard-line National Security Strategy, Trump hardly mentioned the Russian threat, focusing instead on how to establish partnerships with Russia . He mostly referenced Russia to crow about a congratulatory phone call he had with Putin over a foiled terrorist plot.

The Trump administration’s approach to Russia over the last three and half years has been a study in contradiction. These contradictions result in part from the constraints on the president created by accusations that his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. And Trump lacked people in key positions in his government who shared his accommodating vision of Russia and were willing to quietly implement a Russia-friendly foreign policy. He did not have a sufficient understanding of the workings of government to force even his own appointees to implement policies they opposed. Thus, so far, Trump’s Russia policy has been the product of political pressure, internal opposition, and bureaucratic incompetence.

But this situation is unlikely to persist into a second term. With the failure of impeachment, Trump has put the Russia scandal behind him. Over time, the so-called grown-ups have left the room. The Trump administration is now staffed by people who are willing and increasingly able to implement policy aligned with his desires – without any inconvenient recourse to personal belief, conscience, or congressional subpoena.

One can already see the effect of this new breed of ultra-subservient staffers. Much of the Trump administration’s vaunted increase in military assistance to Eastern Europe, the so-called European Deterrence Initiative, has been quietly diverted to fund the border wall with Mexico. It seems likely that, in a second term, Trump would use the relative lack of political pressure and his increased control over the government to establish a condominium with Putin’s Russia, effectively agreeing to a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. This would be unlikely to spell an abrupt end to NATO, but it would divest the organisation of much of its purpose and probably signal a slow descent into irrelevance.

Biden on Russia

Biden, by contrast, has been a picture of consistency (and antipathy) towards Russia. As a 20-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea, he has a long record of hostility toward the Putin regime. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in favour of Trump only reinforced his deep distaste for Putin. At the 2016 Democratic convention, Biden specifically noted Trump’s affinity for the Russian president to demonstrate his unfitness for office: “we cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin.”

In an article in Foreign Affairs published in 2018, Biden and Michael Carpenter lambasted Trump for not taking the Russian threat seriously and advocated an alternative Russia policy based on continued sanctions, a strengthened NATO, and a robust defence of democracy. Possibly anticipating Trump’s impulse to sell out Eastern Europe, Biden and Carpenter repeated Biden’s 2009 pledge that “we will not recognise any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.”

The emphasis on alliances and defending democracy reflects an emerging view in Democratic foreign policy circles that the new global struggle is between authoritarianism and democracy. America must once again, in Biden’s words, lead “the free world to push back against rising authoritarianism”. This new struggle fits very well into the cold war paradigm in which Biden came of age, with the role of the communist Soviet Union now played by an authoritarian Russia .Cold war 2.0 will thus follow a similar script as the first one. It will require US leadership to sustain a strong alliance of democracies in a generational, global struggle against an implacable ideological foe.

Biden’s foreign policy approach is unlikely to lead to a lifting of sanctions on Russia. First, Biden was deeply involved in convincing European partners to institute a sanctions regime against Russia in the first place. He is therefore cognizant of the costs of sanctions both on the target state but also on the issuing parties, and would be unwilling to abandon this complex agreement without seeing concrete results. Second, Biden has commented about Russia’s continued malign influence. On his last visit to Ukraine as vice president in 2017, Biden urged the Trump administration to maintain sanctions against Russia because of its “continued aggression” toward eastern Ukraine. Lastly, Biden views sanctions not only as a method for altering the behavior of a state in the near term, but also as a tool for long-term change. “Maintaining the sanctions that the United States and the EU levied on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine has been important not only in pressuring Moscow to resolve the conflict in the near term but also as a signal to the Kremlin that the costs of such behavior will eventually outweigh any perceived benefits.”

It is clear that Biden’s foreign policy is not only starkly different to Trump’s, but would also have significant consequences for Russia and Putin. Biden seems to have a sober understanding of the many features of contemporary Russia’s authoritarian system—from the harassment of opposition politicians and activists, to limits on freedom of expression, the “choreographed” nature of elections, and efforts to maintain a “democratic façade.” Yet, he believes that Putin’s power remains “brittle at the core” with “shallow roots” and that without a repressive apparatus Putin’s regime would “descend in a storm of boos and whistles.” This demonstrates a serious and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of the nature and foundation of Putin’s regime.

Biden seems to miss the point that Vladimir Putin’s rule is not forced on an oppressed and unwilling public, but is jointly built—co-constructed—through a process of political struggle involving Putin, his opponents and tens of millions of supporters. If elected president, Biden would be facing not “Putin’s Russia,” but “Russia’s Putin.” And assuming that a political system that has been built and strengthened over twenty years has “shallow roots” is not a sound basis on which to construct good foreign policy. 

Russia’s political system is not immutable. Protests are common, voters punish unpopular politicians, and Putin’s popularity ratings are based on citizens’ evaluations. But while Trump routinely underestimates Putin’s global aspirations, Biden would do well not to downplay the true foundation of Putin’s support.

Elections have consequences

The 2020 election will, therefore, likely determine whether America seeks a deal with Russia to carve up Europe into spheres of influence or launches a new, ideological cold war against the country. It is a stark choice.

It is unlikely that either choice will improve security or stability in Europe. Neither Trump’s volatile self-absorption nor Biden’s Manichean fervour represents a sound basis for a policy on Russia. Worse, in the US, Russia policy has become primarily a domestic political issue. So, whatever choice the American people make in November runs the risk of a sudden reversal by the next president.

Of course, the issue of Russia also generates divisions within Europe. If Europeans want to avoid following the American president down one or another blind alley of US domestic politics, they will have to seek greater internal unity and their own policy of tough engagement along the lines that French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed. In that case, they could hope to bring America along and forge a transatlantic approach to Russia. 


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