American experts predict that Democratic challenger Joe Biden, if he wins the presidency, will be in the immediate run at least as belligerent towards Russia as Republican incumbent Donald Trump, yet have a freer hand to rectify abysmal bilateral relations long held hostage to a fierce power struggle in the United States.
Optimism, even a cautious one, may look far-fetched, as neither of the candidates advocates detente with Russia and both are competing in toughness in a great power game.
“There is unrelenting animosity towards Russia coming from both parties for various reasons, though it is more deeply ingrained in the Democrats,” Philip Geraldi, former CIA station chief, told Sputnik.
OF TWO EVILS
Those, who, like Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov, expect little change in American policy toward Russia no matter which candidate wins, are “doubtless correct,” Professor Emeritus of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University Robert Legvold said.
“Whatever may have been Trump's preferences, the Administration's Russia policy has been a harsher version of the Russia policy pursued during the last two years of the Obama administration. A Biden administration is likely to remain focused on the issues that divide the two countries,” he told Sputnik. “It will continue to support the sanctions regime put in place over the last six years and it will stress the necessity of delivering blunt messages to the Russian leadership.”
Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden has been criticizing Trump for failing to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, continued to repeat debunked theories, like there being Russian bounties for killed American soldiers in Afghanistan, and suggested without offering any proof that Republicans’ attacks over his son’s shady business connections may be fed by Russia’s intelligence.
Trump, who spent the lion’s share of his first term fending off collusion allegations — a conspiracy theory promoted by the Democrats that he owed his 2016 victory to Russian hackers and internet trolls — brags about being the toughest President on Moscow and slapping it with sanctions so harsh and multiple that US officials admit running out of targets for new penalties. Even more menacingly, the incumbent is busy dismantling the global arms control framework and pulling troops out of low-intensity conflicts across the world with an openly declared intention to prepare and deploy them against Russia.
All of this, the conspiracies and hawkishness, either generic or needed to dispel suspicions of collusion, are expected to plague Trump’s potential second term.
“Unfortunately, if Donald Trump wins, I think we'll be in for another four years of anti-Russian disinformation and unhinged conspiracy theories that connect imaginary dots between Trump and Russia. I expect the Trump administration to react in the same it has done so for the past four years - ratcheting up sanctions and being excessively hawkish towards Russia so as to disprove its critics,” Hunter Cawood, President of Russian Public Affairs Committee, told Sputnik.
Professor Edward Lozansky, President of American University in Moscow and head of Russia House in Washington, describes Biden and the whole Democratic party as “virulently anti-Russian” and sees “not a single member” on Trump’s team who would seek better relations, though, according to the expert, the President himself “instinctively understands” that they are good for America.
“There is a minimal chance that in case of victory he reshuffles the whole cabinet but it is highly unlikely. In addition, he has to constantly prove that he is tough on Russia,” Lozansky said. “On top of this Congress and the media will not let him go for detente and repeat the example of Ronald Reagan. Therefore, we can only hope and pray that both sides remain vigilant to avoid a worst case scenario.”
SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Biden is more likely than Trump to step back from a confrontation with China and shift the focus to Russia, be better positioned to coordinate anti-Russian campaigns with US foreign allies, start raising human rights and domestic policy issues in bilateral interactions. From the onset, the Democratic administration may seek to settle old scores and dismiss fresh corruption allegations against Biden’s family as a foreign malign influence, thus becoming a different, and perhaps more challenging, vis-a-vis to Moscow.
“I think he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] has to face some consequences for his attack on our country, because that is what happened in 2016 and from what even the Trump’s people say is still happening,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a recent interview to the New York Times podcast.
She referred to allegations that Russia may be attempting to influence US elections through cyberattacks and disinformation efforts. Blaming all-denying Russia for her defeat in the 2016 presidential race, Clinton called for “a lot of accountability for Putin and the kind of accountability that will hurt him personally.”
“A Biden presidency is going to try and figure out how to hold them accountable. You have to have a clear message to Putin that ok, the good time is over,” she said in what perhaps is the most telling remarks to date on potential policies on Russia under the Democrats.
DETOX FOR RESET
However, American experts foresee under Biden at least one fundamental change, which may over time translate into a gradual thaw in US-Russian relations.
“If Biden wins, I am optimistic that Democrats and those in the media who have been obsessed over Russia for the past four years will move on and shift their focus to domestic policy battles. Democrats understand that scandalizing Russia has been an effective weapon against Trump, but if Trump is out of the picture - then that attack line loses its utility,” Cawood said.
Legvold predicts a highly confrontational first year of Biden’s administration, but with a possibility of gradual improvements afterward.
“If small positive steps are taken by one side and reciprocated by the other - and no disruptive event occurs - I believe a Biden administration is capable of pushing toward a more constructive relationship with Russia,” he said.
“That is based on (a) the long history of Biden's approach to US foreign policy in general and toward Russia in particular, including his important role in promoting the 2008 "reset," and (b) the elimination of the toxic effect that the Trump factor has had on Biden's, his circle's, and the Democratic party leadership's attitude and approach toward Russia,” Legvold explained.
Movement in this direction will, of course, depend on how the Russian leadership chooses to deal with a Biden administration, he warns. If it focuses primarily on negative impressions and acts on them, the prospects are limited. If it decides instead to focus on positive possibilities and works to encourage them, the prospects improve.
SAVING ARMS CONTROL
The immediate aftermath of a Biden win — an election outcome projected by many polls, but by no means guaranteed — will mean the salvation of the New START treaty, the only arms control regime in place between Russia and the United States, experts agree. The cap on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals is set to expire next February. Biden is believed to be ready to extend it unconditionally, while Trump is negotiating its major revision.
“The Biden administration will save New START and be ready to explore the next stage in US-Russian strategic nuclear arms control. It will not attempt to restore the INF [The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty abandoned by Trump], but it is likely to be ready to deal with the question of nuclear trends in the European context,” Legvold said.
Russia has recently offered to refrain from the deployment of intermediate and shorter-range missiles in its European part on the condition of reciprocity, an offer that the US hesitates to accept.
Cawood also counts on a quick New START extension if Biden wins. He is hopeful that “it might actually foster dialogue on other issues,” which, according to Russian diplomats, is essentially dormant across the board — from the economy and anti-terror to cultural exchanges.
Trump’s broader policies, like nurturing US energy independence, undermining international regimes and institutions, being trigger-happy with trade wars to force China and Europe into the preferential treatment of American exporters, may look no less problematic to Russia than frontal attacks.
In an article for Carnegie Moscow think tank, Tatiana Mitrova, the Director of Russia’s SKOLKOVO Energy Centre, explores Trump’s and Biden’s opposite approaches to the energy sector and concludes that both bode badly for the Russian economy heavily dependent on oil and gas, but for completely different reasons.
She argued that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, super-soft environmental regulations, crippling sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Europe, combined with “Twitter and telephone pressure on OPEC+” greatly benefitted the American energy industry, allowed it to increase production by almost 4 million barrels per day and resulted in a noticeable loss of oil and gas revenues for Russia.
“If Trump stays for the second term, he promises to maintain support for traditional energy (coal, oil, gas - everything competes with Russian exports), and exceptionally soft regulation of the oil and gas sector, and quick issuance of licenses for development on the shelf and in the Arctic, which is unlikely to delight Russian producers,” Mitrova wrote.
In contrast, Biden pledges to curtail fossil fuel production, take care of climate change and invest trillions in green energy. For Russian producers, the reversal would offer a relatively short respite, but eventually contribute to a slowdown of global oil and gas demand, Mitrova warns.
This article was originally published as a Sputnik Exclusive.