As a special treat for political analysts and US policymakers, an interview with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was broadcast on his birthday last Wednesday. With less than a month to go until the heated US Presidential Election, his comments about the two main contenders were of particular interest and became punch lines that were highlighted by the political bases of both Democrats and Republicans to fit their chosen narratives.
Putin’s observation of Joe Biden’s “anti-Russian rhetoric” could grant the Democratic base with a reinforced perception that the latter would bring the required counteraction and strength against their surmised bogeyman. The Republicans could bask in Putin pointing to the shared values between the Democratic and Soviet Communist parties; “equality, brotherhood, what’s wrong with that?”. These selective attempts at understanding Russia’s position come November, however, are deceptive and are of limited value.
Moving away from these points for the domestic political scorecard, there is little to suggest that any perceived preference is noteworthy in the grand scope of the Russia-US relationship. This is not a tale of “mixed messages” from Putin, nor is it the hedging of bets, but about realism and pragmatism derived from Russia’s overarching viewpoint. The Russian proverb: “It’s better to see once than to hear a hundred times”, could not be more fitting of this approach; rhetoric is one thing, actions are another. Russia has come to understand this over the years.
Vladimir Putin himself has worked with four US administrations during his tenure as President of the Russian Federation; two Democrats and two Republicans. Two of them, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, came to power with a willingness and readiness to improve the bilateral relationship, and both times the relationship took two steps back. This certainly does not summon optimism in the halls of the Kremlin.
While the former failed in diplomacy, the latter was faced with the obstacle of Russiagate; any relationship or even standard diplomatic practice with Russia or Putin has been matched with an uproar of accusations linked to the machinations of Hillary Clinton. Initially, Moscow had expected the scandal to blow over due to the sheer outlandish claims being made, the naturally-occurring blame game of the losing side, and when it didn’t seem to cease with the launch of the Mueller investigation, it became the least of their worries when discerning US geopolitical actions on the world stage. These actions were detrimental to Russia.
US foreign policy could, meanwhile, remain in the shadows of this pressure that the incumbent was facing at home and the necessary actions could be taken to pursue policies that were overwhelmingly adversarial and, in some cases, of a dangerously provocative nature vis-à-vis Russia – multiple rounds of sanctions levied against the Russian state and against valuable projects like Nord Stream II, the sending of military aid to Ukraine and withdrawing from a string of agreements concerning arms control – the INF and Open Skies Treaties.
Trump’s rhetoric was surely welcomed by Moscow, but flowery language doesn’t cut it on the international arena. Much of this as Putin states, however, has been a failure due to a “bipartisan consensus on the need to contain Russia, to curb the country’s development”. It begs the question, therefore, why Russia would have any preference for either candidate when the root is perceived to lie in bipartisanship. Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council, however, dismisses this thought entirely and notes that it is not even the bipartisan efforts that are solely to blame, but Trump’s own initiatives; the destruction of the entire system of strategic arms control and attacks against Syria were initiated from the White House and not Capitol Hill.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, has indeed taken an aggressive stance in relation to Russia and Putin in rhetoric. He has reiterated his ranking of Russia as an “opponent” and threatened that Russia must “pay a price” for its alleged meddling in the 2016 Presidential Election. He has furthered the “Russian bounties” allegations, despite multiple officials in the Intelligence Community maintaining it as being unconfirmed, and has taken a bizarre stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, highlighting and lambasting Russian efforts.
Nevertheless, despite Biden’s belief in Putin “lacking a soul”, there are some issues that cut through his aggressive rhetoric that could serve as springboards for normalization. While Trump’s administration is continuing its ripping apart of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) that is set to expire in February, Biden has maintained that it should be extended and Putin has long been in favor of it. He is, thus, believed to bring a certain degree of predictability as outlined by his official policy.
The crux of the matter, therefore, lies in Russia viewing the US as an unabridged entity where the general policy and attitudes vis-à-vis Russia far outweigh the statements or rhetoric from Presidential candidates. Until a sound policy that can work for both Russia and the United States is advanced in the circles of US policymakers, Russia will maintain such a position. The paradoxical nature of options for Russia in November; the choice of having a President that is welcoming in theory, but not in practice and one that is unwelcoming in theory but has a shared stance on key issues – doesn’t even matter. The aforementioned Russian proverb stands clear; “It’s better to see once than to hear a hundred times.”
This article was originally published in Modern Diplomacy.