Biden’s response to Russia

Marc Ozawa,
Senior Researcher,
NATO Defense College

On January 20th Joe Biden will be sworn in as the forty-sixth president of the United States, and US-Russia relations will be in the spotlight of both international and domestic politics once again. Having focused on securing a second term for Donald Trump during the campaign, Russian covert operations will be targeting social and political divides to sow as much discord as possible during the final months of Trump’s presidency. Inflicting the maximum damage will be aimed at stoking chaos, rendering the Biden presidency ineffective, and inhibiting the ability of the United States to play a leadership role on the world stage. Given the multiple congressional reports and testimonies by FBI and Homeland Security directors, this should come as no surprise to the incoming administration. However, there will be a temptation particularly in the first few months for Biden to retaliate with haste, and this would set the trajectory of US-Russia relations for years to come. President-elect Biden has said as much in his campaign that “my message to Vladimir Putin is that if I get elected, I’m coming.”

It will not be the first time that a Russian-attacked, democratically elected head-of-state will have to decide which penalties to inflict for election meddling. There are multiple examples in Europe, but none that have the geopolitical ripple effects comparable to the United States. Therefore, it will be all the more important for the president-elect to carefully calibrate the right response. Despite Russia’s actions, a measured and nuanced policy will be imperative, one that not only protects the US and allies from further election attacks but also deals with the international developments that are currently undermining cohesion in the transatlantic alliance. Biden’s policy on Russia needs to address three levels simultaneously – bilateral relations with Russia, the international environment, and the domestic arena. At the international level, the driving factors will be NATO, relations with the EU, and China. A balanced policy will be critical because a new administration presents the opportunity to introduce a degree of stability into the geopolitical environment, which has been critically lacking in recent years, to Russia’s advantage no less. Likewise, the Biden presidency will allow the US to resume a leadership role even while dealing with the multiple domestic challenges that the new president will face on day one.

Experience has shown that the United States and Russia are capable of cooperating even in times of high tension, this ability being born from the constraints of Mutually Assured Destruction and fine-tuned in the final decades of the Cold War. No doubt that Biden will be under immense pressure from politicians on both sides of the aisle and a large segment of the US population, to retaliate in kind – for “a breach of sovereignty” in the case of the former and as payback for the perceived excesses of the Trump presidency for the latter. The challenge will be in identifying an approach that invokes a sufficient penalty on Russia thereby addressing calls for retribution while not irrevocably damaging future prospects for cooperation or threatening military escalation. Strengthening sanctions is a starting point, which Russian leadership will no doubt be expecting. In light of the previous round of sanctions for the annexation of Crimea, it is clear that sanctions are at least painful enough for the Kremlin to mount a campaign to have them removed both out in the open and covertly. Targeting Russian interests in other regions such as Syria in the Middle East, or denying Russia access to markets and financial platforms critical to its economy is another option. This could include expanding limitations to investment financing in the energy sector and putting pressure on Russia’s arms customers to look for alternatives to Russia. Biden may also turn to the intelligence community to explore appropriate responses for Russia’s covert-hybrid attacks. It will be important throughout this process to keep communication channels open, preferably beyond the spotlight of political theater, in order to reduce the risk of misunderstandings.

Domestically, a comprehensive Russia policy would also need to account for the protection of socio-political institutions. For this there are lessons to be learned in Europe especially from Russia’s neighbors in the Baltic region. Countries such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania not to mention Poland and even Finland, have been dealing with Russian election meddling and other forms of hybrid aggression for decades. Their experience demonstrates the importance of societal resilience and the need for interagency cooperation and public-private partnerships. Although this may not come as new information to the US defense and security community, relevant agencies will likely be more empowered to act on recommendations from experts and the intelligence community, certainly more so than in recent years.

Despite concerns leveled by some European leaders toward the Trump administration, there is reason to believe that allies will rally around US leadership under Biden. In all likelihood, the Biden administration will not be hampered down by a ‘Russian cloud’ of investigations like President Trump. Biden will have more options at his disposal to deal with Russia, and his views on US-Russia relations will probably be more in tune with mainstream thinking in Washington and in many NATO capitals. Even in the highly partisan political environment of the United States Senate, since President Trump’s inauguration one of the few issues in which there has been overwhelming bipartisan agreement is in support for NATO. This all bodes well for formulating and implementing policies because, as recent experience has shown, it is difficult if not impossible for the American president to direct US policy towards Russia without the support of Congress. Despite President Trump’s desire to reset US-Russia relations, he has run into a wall at every turn. The challenge for President-elect Biden will be in exercising restraint in light of the options available to him, a dilemma that Trump never faced.


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