Biden’s First Month in Office Breeds Uncertainty for the Trajectory of Russia-U.S. Relations

With only two months into his four-year presidential term, it’s imperative that President Biden engages in diplomatic activities with Russia and reinstates areas of cooperation.

It’s officially been over a month since President Joe Biden was sworn into office, and we’ve already seen dramatic developments in Russia-U.S. relations. President Biden’s term began on an unpredictable footing, as political bystanders and international actors wondered how Biden would re-shape U.S. foreign policy towards Russia. Questions manifested in the form of: will Biden take an approach of “resetting” Russian-American relations, similar to when Biden was VP under President Barack Obama, or would he take a strong-armed approach, unlike his predecessor President Trump? This question has failed to be fully answered in the past month, as signs of whether Russia-U.S. relations will be improved still remain a mixed bag.

The early-on diplomatic success of the New START Treaty extension shed hope throughout the international arena but was short-lived after the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the jailing of Alexei Navalny. While President Biden’s foreign policy strategy towards the Russian Federation may not entirely be clear-cut at the moment, it’s undeniable that the White House is playing the long-game with Russia— agreeing to common grounds of cooperation, yet firmly rejecting anything outside of it.

Just a week after President Biden was inaugurated in January, optimistic signs of an improved relationship were expressed through a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 26th. The talk signaled a hopeful foundation of dialogue and open communication between the two leaders. President Putin and Biden, in their discussion, explored the options of strategic stability in the realm of arms control and rising security issues. This talk put into action the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty) for another five years. The extension erased the possibility of its expiration on February 5th, 2021, and reaffirmed the two nation’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. Arms control and nonproliferation have also been a consistent means of cooperation between Washington and Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. President Biden's avowed commitment to arms control with Russia through the New START Treaty will undoubtedly foster a safer international system and advance both sides' national security interests.

The diplomatic success of early-February was quickly overshadowed by America’s response to the Alexei Navalny jailing. Just last week on March 2nd, the U.S. alongside the European Union, ordered an expansion on existing economic sanctions towards Russia. The sanctions are to be implemented under the provisions of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and the U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, in response to the suspected poisoning of Navalny in late-January.

It's not exactly surprising the Biden administration made this move. President Biden has said repeatedly that human rights promotion would be a hallmark of his presidency. Yet as pointed out earlier this month, such sanctions are counterproductive. They inevitably hurt ordinary Russians through trickle-down economics and are likely to close off avenues for constructive dialogue. Nonetheless, these sanctions represent a major move in Biden's foreign policy towards Russia.

As seen just a month prior, Russia and the U.S. were engaging on constructive diplomatic terms but are now facing a rupture in ties. In a recent interview with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, he stated that “we are ready for that,” in response to being asked if Russia would cut ties with the EU. President Biden and his administration must be cognizant that their reactionary imposition of sanctions on Russia will likely result in a deterioration in Russia’s willingness to engage the West and will act as a curtain to the positive occurrence of cooperation shown through the New START Treaty extension.

On February 26th, President Biden released a statement on the seven-year anniversary of Russia’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula. The statement reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to stand with Ukraine on the 2014 territorial dispute, decisively stating that “Crimea is Ukraine.” As President Biden’s views on Crimea were already tacit, his February 26th statement expressed unnecessary notions of hostility towards Russia. Dialogue and the possibility of future reconciliation about Crimea under the Biden administration were thrown out the window, as the brief also stated that “the United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula.” It seems that President Biden has failed to recognize the extensive line of polls conducted on Crimea. For example, independent polling by the Pew Research Center and Gallup Poll, both show that most Crimeans believe the 2014 referendum was free, fair, and should be recognized.

While President Biden’s foreign policy strategy towards Russia in his first two weeks began on a positive and dialogue-first level, projections of where the Biden administration will direct the U.S.-Russian relationship are gloomy. As economic sanctions begin to work against Russia, in pair with President Biden’s continued disapproval of Russia’ past foreign activities, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to engage with Russia— leading to a deterioration of cooperation on an array of fields and a reduced level of stability to both nation’s national security. With only two months into his four-year presidential term, it’s imperative that President Biden engages in diplomatic activities with Russia and reinstates areas of cooperation in hopes of avoiding Cold War-levels of relations.

Sam Schilling is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC), where he focuses on Russia-U.S. relations, post-Cold War security structures, and NATO’s role in Europe.