From Nezavisimaya gazeta, Nov. 16, 2020, complete text:
Moscow is not reckoning on dramatic changes in Russian-American relations under the new US administration, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a Nov. 12 interview on topical international issues. According to him, the Kremlin is expecting “no revolutionary changes” [from the US] regarding Russia.
Lavrov suggested that if inaugurated, Democrat Joe Biden would pursue a foreign policy similar to [former US president] Barack Obama’s. Biden was vice-president under Obama, whose Russia policy can be divided into two parts: the “reset” period, when Russian-American relations developed very quickly and reached all but their highest point following the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the period after [Russian President] Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency – the watershed moment being the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Bilateral relations sharply deteriorated and rivalry clearly dominated [in the latter period].
Despite certain changes in the [US official] rhetoric [toward Russia] on the part of the 45th US president, Donald Trump, bilateral relations continued to deteriorate. It was under Trump that their main support structures were destroyed. Suffice it to recall that from 2017 to 2020, sanctions were imposed 46 times against Russia on all possible grounds: from Ukraine to Syria, from chemical weapons to energy cooperation between Russia and Germany. That had not happened under any other US administration, whose leaders were much less positive in their public statements about Russia.
The relationship with Russia was a key point of the Biden campaign’s foreign policy platform. A week before the election, Biden even called Russia the biggest global threat to Washington, and China the US’s biggest competitor. “Well, I think the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our – our security and our alliances, is Russia,” he said in an interview with CBS.
Moscow called Biden’s assessment mistaken. “This is flat-out wrong; we completely disagree. We can only regret that absolute hatred of the Russian Federation is thus being instilled,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press secretary. He recently reiterated Putin’s statement that Russia is ready to work with any president chosen by the American people. “Of course, a president who wants to somehow revive our bilateral relations would appeal to us,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
Biden has said he would be tougher on Putin than Trump was. “Unlike Trump, I’ll defend our democratic values and stand up to autocrats like Putin,” he tweeted in August. He also threatened to “punish” Moscow if it meddled in the 2020 election and rejected Trump’s idea of inviting Russia back to the Group of Seven.
As we can see, Biden’s position suggests that tension in relations between Moscow and Washington will not only persist, but may even worsen after his inauguration. However, arms control is one of the few areas that analysts say could become a platform for productive negotiations between Russia and the US. Moreover, Biden has repeatedly spoken about the advisability of extending the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), which expires on Feb. 5, 2021.
In October, Putin remarked that such statements are a very significant element of possible future interaction with the US. He proposed extending New START for at least a year without additional conditions and conducting substantive negotiations on a new treaty in the interim. In turn, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that if the treaty is extended for a year, Russia is prepared to join the American side in freezing nuclear arsenals for that period, in the absence of additional US requirements [see Vol. 72, No. 43, pp. 3‑6].
Meanwhile, hopes that the fate of the New START treaty would become clear after the US election have been dashed. The situation is complicated by the fact that Trump does not acknowledge that he lost [the election] and is trying to legally challenge the results in several states. Lavrov says that amid the ongoing clamor around the presidential election, Moscow does not expect realistic proposals from the US to extend New START and will wait until the situation calms down.
At the same time, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, when asked about the prospects for bilateral relations under a Biden administration, noted Biden’s fundamental readiness to extend New START. “This does not mean that everything will be very smooth with the Americans in the field of armaments and disarmament if a Democratic administration comes to power. But Biden understands the need to extend the New START treaty – that much is certain,” he said.
Incidentally, it would be strange to expect a different approach from Biden. In 1979, during the Jimmy Carter administration, he traveled to Moscow [as part of a congressional delegation] to discuss the details of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreements (SALT‑II, one of the predecessors of the START Treaty) with USSR foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. And the New START treaty, signed in 2010, is considered the brainchild of [then-Russian president] Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama, under whom Biden was vice-president. And while Trump argued that this treaty was unprofitable for the US, extending New START is a logical step for Biden. Granted, he would have just 16 days to act before the last remaining agreement curbing the two largest nuclear powers in the world expires, the AP emphasizes, recalling that Biden will take office on Jan. 20, 2021.
Generally speaking, Biden may prove more convenient to the Kremlin in some ways and less convenient in others, threatening to create new tension in relations. He will certainly boost support for Ukraine, where he has paid many official visits, and introduce a firmer stance on human rights issues in Russia. Biden is expected to continue criticizing Putin, but his approach to relations with Moscow may be more consistent and predictable. At the same time, there will be no bilateral summits – at least not any time soon. At most, there will be a meeting on the sidelines of multilateral events. It turns out that the possibility of a new US president will be less significant for Russia than for many other countries. Russian-American relations are already in the tank, and there is no sign yet that they will significantly improve.