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The Biden Administration Will Have Its Hands Full With Russia

Yet the Trump era wasn’t a clean sweep for the Kremlin. After the 2016 election, Russian officials “were hoping for rapprochement—a big breakthrough in bilateral relations—and on the top of that list, they were hoping that President Trump would lift sanctions,” McFaul says. It didn’t happen. The United States ultimately did not lift sanctions on Russia; in fact, it imposed more (though some dispute their relative effectiveness). The US did not recognize Putin’s annexation of Crimea, nor did it dismantle NATO.

“I fully expect that president-elect Biden will not seek friendship with Vladimir Putin,” McFaul says, recalling that when Biden and Putin last met in 2011, there were no such overtures.

Many policy challenges will guide Washington’s engagement with Russia during the Biden-Harris administration. Democracy and human rights are key elements of that portfolio—and there, McFaul believes, the president-elect’s team will take a harder line with Moscow. “There is no question in my mind that president-elect Biden will speak much more openly about issues of democracy and human rights, including inside Russia,” McFaul says. “And that will create friction with the Kremlin, without doubt. They enjoyed the honeymoon that they’ve had about those sets of issues.”

The Biden-Harris administration will also have to repair the US relationship with NATO, which Trump spent his time in office undermining. “There’s nothing worse than misperceptions or miscalculations about our credibility to our NATO allies,” he says. “And I actually think that strengthening NATO and strengthening that commitment will reduce the likelihood of any kind of unintentional conflict with Russia.”

Trump’s ambassador to NATO recently pledged a “seamless” transition to the Biden administration, just weeks after Biden began announcing his planned appointments to key national security positions. These include Jake Sullivan for national security adviser, Linda Thomas-Greenfield for ambassador to the United Nations, and Antony Blinken for secretary of state. All are experienced foreign policy hands. Among other roles, Sullivan was national security adviser to vice president Biden, Thomas-Greenfield was a former assistant secretary of state and a 35-year Foreign Service veteran, and Blinken was a deputy assistant secretary of state.

For Russia, these announcements foreshadow a US emphasis on international engagement, McFaul says. Both Biden and Blinken have extensive history with Ukraine and other surrounding countries, meaning Washington is likely to up its engagement with Russia and surrounding countries—though McFaul is clear that such diplomacy is not merely about confrontation.

“I do think there will be, and should be, some areas of cooperation, and at the top of that list I would put arms control,” McFaul argues. “I fully expect that President Biden will seek to extend the New START Treaty,” for which talks have been ongoing. “He was the point person for its ratification, after all, back in 2010. To me, that’s a no-brainer, and that’s good for America.” Strategic talks with Moscow stalled under the Trump administration, but they are an essential mode of engagement, McFaul says.

Not all policy of the last four years will be discarded; while there are certain to be many points of divergence, the incoming Biden-Harris administration may very well stay the course of its predecessors in domains like NATO spending. While Trump claims credit, McFaul notes that it was Barack Obama and Angela Merkel who first pushed for NATO members to contribute more.

Economic sanctions on Russian individuals and companies will remain in place too, McFaul predicts. That list currently includes Russian state-owned firms, state officials, and oligarchs. “Unless Putin changes his behavior, I don’t see the conditions under which a Biden administration will change that, and I think that’s good,” he says.