Russia Will Remain ‘Toxic’ for Any American Administration

Valdai Discussion Club* expert Dmitri Suslov on what to expect in Moscow from the U.S. presidential election

The current U.S. presidential election is unique in many respects. First, the candidates from both parties are quite old. For the first time, a president who was impeached by the House of Representatives is running for reelection. For the first time, the election is taking place during a pandemic, at a time when a significant portion of voting will not take place at a polling place, but by mail. Also, voting started one month before Election Day and will end a week after it.

But most of all, the election will go down in history for taking place at a time when the American elite and society have been split over political and sociocultural topics at unprecedented levels in recent decades. Not only the Republican and Democratic elites, but also their voters, view each other as enemies whose legacies they’d prefer to raze to the ground. They advocate for fundamentally different models for America’s future and its past. The demolition of monuments to Confederate figures is evidence of the latter. In the context of this polarization and mutual animosity, the likely litigation over election results, nonrecognition of the results and mutual accusations of illegitimacy will certainly provoke a new wave of protests and riots. The size of the wave could even surpass those that took place in the spring and summer of this year in the fight against racism.

Such polarization means that the U.S. will remain a divided country, regardless of who becomes the head of state next January. However, the losing party will try to weaken the winners just as the Democrats have been doing to Donald Trump.

Many foreign policy issues will continue be used in the interests of domestic political purposes, just as they are now.

In addition to this, at least three main features of Donald Trump’s foreign policy will remain unchanged regardless of the election’s results. The U.S. will continue the policy of double containment of China and Russia, its foreign economic policy will remain quite trade oriented, but the balance between its role as a benevolent world leader and the revival of its national power will be further shifted in favor of the latter.

Consequently, regardless of the election’s outcome in the U.S., the possibility of improving Russian-American relations and overcoming confrontations is nonexistent. For the first time in 30 years, the prospect of a change in the U.S. administration does not raise any positive expectations in Moscow.

First, a strong bipartisan consensus on the perception of Russia as an adversary has developed in Washington. For Republicans, it is a geopolitical opponent, seeking to undermine the international position of the U.S., and is an important partner of their main strategic competitor — China. For Democrats, it’s both a geopolitical and an ideological opponent, whom they believe has the intention of shaking the very foundation of U.S. values and undermining Americans’ belief in democracy and liberal values.

At the same time, the U.S. perceives Russia as a strategically weakening and fading enemy whose geopolitical defeat is only a matter of time. The reasons are rooted in the state of the Russian economy, estimates of the domestic political development of Russia that predominate in Washington, the Russian Federation’s lack of many allies and the increasing asymmetry in favor of China. The majority of American politicians and experts are of the opinion that Moscow will be forced to seek protection from Beijing in the West sooner or later. Also, if the U.S. eventually abandons its current policy, then it is pointless to conduct a strategic dialogue with it except over issues that are beneficial to the U.S., such as the prevention of war and selective engagement. The absence of economic interdependence and the Russian lobby in the U.S. make confrontation with Moscow “cheap.”

Second, the Russian factor has been used, sadly, as an instrument in the United States’ domestic political struggle for a long time. Even under the 44th president, Barack Obama, the Republicans tried to disrupt the reset of Russian-American relations in every way possible, suggesting that the relevant White House policies were a betrayal of American interests and values. After 2016, allegations of collusion with the Kremlin and Russian interference on behalf of Trump became the main political stick of Democrats against the incumbent U.S. president. At the same time, Russia has once again been accused of interfering on Trump’s side. In particular, incriminating evidence about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and targeted information campaigns on social media have been attributed to Russia. It is significant that Trump’s staff, as a counterattack, also tries to link Biden and Hillary Clinton to ties with Russia.

Regardless of the result of the U.S. elections, there will certainly be a new series of investigations about “Russian intervention” — with new sanctions and an even more poisonous atmosphere in our relations.

Third, the above-mentioned polarization of the American political elite and society, which is unprecedented in the past century and a half, is evidence in favor of continuing confrontation. It excludes the formation of a large bipartisan coalition in favor of improvement, or at least of improving relations with Russia, while the appearance of such a coalition, including the White House itself, and a large part of Congress, is a necessary condition for detente.

Besides, it is precisely this polarization, as well as many other foreign policy issues, that will force Russia to be used in the domestic political struggle.

If Joe Biden, when elected, tries to establish selective cooperation with Moscow — for example, if he wants to extend the START III agreement** without preconditions — he will instantly be accused of weakness, betrayal of U.S. national interests, or even “collusion” with Russia.

Still, a victory for Biden or Trump will have only slightly different nuances in the further development of the Russian-American confrontation. In the event of a Trump victory, the nature of relations will not change fundamentally. Washington will continue to combine strict deterrence of Russia in Europe and in the post-Soviet areas while attempting to persuade it that the real threat is China, and to establish a dialogue with Russia to counter it on certain issues — as in the Arctic, for example. At the same time, Democrats, who will most likely strengthen their position in Congress, will even more wildly accuse Trump of being unwilling to properly confront Russia. They will say Moscow itself is intervening again in the American election in Trump’s favor. New investigations will begin, which will be followed by new sanctions, but any attempts to have constructive dialogue with Russia will be declared a betrayal. The START III agreement** will not be extended, and strategic stability will weaken even more.

In the more likely event of a Biden victory, first, the U.S. policy toward Russia will noticeably focus more on ideological issues — criticisms of democracy and human rights issues, support for the opposition and policies that they’d probably call in Moscow “regime change” politics. Second, the Biden administration as a whole will generally toughen its rhetoric about Russia. This will probably trigger a new series of anti-Russian sanctions as a punishment for Trump’s election in 2016 and attempts to help him in 2020. According to the Democrats, this victory only happened because of interference from Moscow. Yet a lack of evidence in 2020, like before, will not concern anyone.

Third, the Biden administration will strengthen support of Ukraine and the policy of Russian deterrence in the post-Soviet area as a whole. This is clearly confirmed by statements made by his staff saying that Moscow’s policy allegedly contributed to the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Fourth, Biden’s victory will result in a temporary improvement in trans-Atlantic relations, which will reduce Russia’s policy opportunities in countries in Western Europe. In particular, it will reduce the motivation of these countries to strive for more constructive interaction with Moscow.

At the same time, with a Biden victory, Russia and the U.S. will most likely renew the START III agreement** and will probably strengthen selective engagement on different issues of safety in multilateral and bilateral formats (for example, about nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and the Middle East settlements). A long overdue and necessary dialogue on military aspects of cybersecurity may begin. On the other hand, it will elicit harsh criticism from Republicans. Also it will be no less difficult for Russia to develop new architecture for maintaining strategic stability after the new START III agreement** with the Biden administration than with Trump’s.

The U.S. policy in Syria and Venezuela will not change fundamentally with the arrival of Biden. Washington most likely will not take military measures to overthrow objectionable regimes. A return to the interventionist politics of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2010s has decreasing support within the country, especially taking into account the substantial strengthening of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Ultimately, a Biden administration will most likely bring new tensions to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. This is due to human rights issues, possible attempts to create a dialogue with Iran in a multilateral format and a likely rejection of Trump’s proposed “deal of the century” for Israel and Palestine. This will give Russia new opportunities in the Middle East.

Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies⎯Higher School of Economics, expert in the Valdai club*, participant of the club’s XVII Annual meeting on “Lessons from the Pandemic and the New Agenda: How to Turn a Global Crisis into an Opportunity for Peace” (Moscow, Oct. 20, 2020)

*Editor’s note: The Valdai Discussion Club is a Moscow-based think tank and discussion forum.

**Editor’s note: The Start III agreement was a proposed bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, which was never signed. The reference here may be to the New START treaty, which took effect in 2011 and is set to expire in February 2021.

About this publication

About Christa Diehl 32 Articles
Christa studied International Relations and Russian at the University of Delaware. She spent a semester in Saint Petersburg and loved it. Aside from studying languages, she likes playing the guitar and traveling.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply