With less than a week to go until the election, there is little clarity about Joe Biden’s intentions toward the Kremlin, and for good reason. How to deal with Russia presents him with a conundrum: On the one hand, Russian iniquities have been an article of faith for the Democrats throughout the Trump presidency, providing both a stick to beat Trump with and an excuse for the Democrats’ defeat last time around. To drop all that, would make for quite a U-turn, and invite cries of hypocrisy from Congressional Republicans.
At the same time, however, the next President will face a Congress — whatever its new composition — that is even more hostile to China than it is to Russia. To be denouncing Putin and all his works and keeping Russia so far as possible out of international conversations might leave the United States with more adversaries than a President Biden — widely seen as an old-style American multilateralist — would want.
So far, Biden has said nothing to raise Russia’s hopes. On the contrary — he has explicitly warned Moscow about intervening in Belarus and promised that “unlike Trump, I’ll defend our democratic values and stand up to autocrats like Putin”. In probably his last major interview before the election, on the CBS programme ‘60 Minutes’, Biden went so far as to describe Russia as “the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our security and our alliances”, and blamed Russia for a “smear campaign” about his son’s business dealings.
Both claims were rebuffed the following day by the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who said: “We can only regret that absolute hatred of the Russian Federation is spread in this way”.
Nevertheless, Putin himself has refrained from either attacking Biden or entering the slanging match over the activities of Biden’s son. In a TV interview at the weekend he said that while Hunter Biden had “made very good money” in Ukraine, Moscow sees “nothing criminal” in it. The Kremlin, it would appear, is hedging its bets.
Russians don’t seem to think that the outcome of the election will make much difference. Were Biden to return the US to the Iran nuclear agreement and to the Climate Change process, Russia could also find itself back, without too much effort, at the diplomatic top table. In a poll earlier this month, 16% of those asked thought a Trump victory would be better for Russia, 9% preferred Biden, while 65% thought it did not matter.
Ultimately, Biden may prove the safer bet for the Kremlin. The former Vice-President’s first dealings with Russia were in Cold War times, and he is well versed in the Western priorities of that era — human rights and arms control. On this score, Moscow is used to weathering human rights complaints and Putin has already extended two pre-election olive branches on arms control, one trying to rescue the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and another proposing a year’s extension to the New Start Treaty. Were Biden to return the US to the Iran nuclear agreement in some way and to the Climate Change process, Russia could also find itself back, without too much effort, to the diplomatic top table.