U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, when first elected, both thought they could establish a rapport with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and dramatically improve U.S.-Russian relations.
Their appraisal of Putin swiftly changed.
When asked his impression of Putin after his first face-to-face meeting, George W. Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Obama, eight years later, openly sought a reset in relations only to see his hopes dashed finally with Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014.
Joe Biden, who as Obama’s vice president supported the reset strategy, is unlikely to follow the example of his predecessors, say former diplomats and analysts. Biden indicated as much during his presidential campaign, saying at a CNN town hall last month, “I believe Russia is an opponent, I really do.”
In contrast, he called China “a competitor, a serious competitor.”
During the presidential campaign, Biden sought to differentiate himself from President Donald Trump regarding Russia, accusing his Republican rival of being soft on Putin.
Trump and his aides pushed back, with the president saying in August, “The last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump because nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have.”
Early last month, Biden criticized his opponent for remaining silent on the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which he bluntly blamed on the Moscow government.
“Once again, the Kremlin has used a favorite weapon — an agent from the Novichok class of chemicals — in an effort to silence a political opponent,” he said. “It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent.”
But candidates can say one thing during a campaign and do something else once in office; sometimes they have little choice because of circumstances or the course of events. Will a President Joe Biden pursue as muscular an approach to Russia as he has suggested?
“I don't think Biden is going to fall head over heels to butter up Putin,” said David Kramer, who was an assistant secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush. “Moscow has continued with a disinformation campaign against him, and so I don't think he's going to extend a hand and say, ‘Let's make nice,’” added Kramer, now a fellow at the McCain Institute, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington.
“I mean, no reset. I don’t think he’s going to try anything like 2009,” Kramer said in reference to Obama’s failed reset policy. Kramer thinks Biden will have to focus largely on domestic issues, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact.
“And to the extent he is able to focus on foreign policy, Russia should not be at the high end of the priority list,” he told VOA. Although he added, “You can't ignore it. And it is a factor in a number of problems we face. I think he's going to have to devote his limited time when it comes to foreign policy to work with countries that are ready to solve problems.” By that he means shoring up America’s transatlantic alliance.
Biden and Putin have met — without much cordiality. In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker magazine, Biden said at one meeting he told the Russian leader, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.”
Biden continued: “He looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said: ‘We understand one another.’”
Aside from the lack of personal rapport, analysts say any effort to reset relations would be complicated by economic sanctions on Russia, imposed by both the Obama and Trump administrations. The measures will leave Biden with little room to maneuver and are unlikely to be lifted while Western powers believe Russia is mounting cyberattacks against them.
Former Western diplomats say antagonism is likely to persist between Washington and Moscow as long as the Kremlin seeks to undermine Western democratic institutions.
Last week, a former top security adviser to British prime minister Boris Johnson, Mark Sedwill, revealed that Britain has launched a series of covert cyber-based attacks on Russian leaders and their interests to “impose a price greater than one they might have expected” for their cyber-offensive against the West.
Other allied powers, including the U.S. are doing so, too, say Western intelligence officials in what is becoming a “like-for-like” cyber-conflict with the Kremlin in the so-called “gray space,” the gap between normal state relations and armed conflict.
The U.S. and other Western powers are in conflict with Russia on a range of issues — from the 2014 annexation of Crimea to the pro-Moscow agitation in east Ukraine, from Russia’s backing of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to the 2018 attempted assassination in Salisbury, England, of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal.
Heather Williams of Britain’s Chatham House expects a Biden administration to focus on two key areas: restoring arms control and strengthening NATO to check Russian adventurism.
“On the one hand, the U.S. must maintain a strong deterrent and restore credibility with its allies. At the same time, it must pursue arms control and other risk reduction opportunities,” she said.
In the final days of the presidential election the Kremlin appeared to be hedging its bets on who might win.
Republican campaigners, as well as President Trump, had been hurling corruption charges at Biden’s son Hunter over his service on the board of an energy company in Ukraine and business dealings with China.
But Putin dodged an opportunity to amplify the allegations against Hunter Biden, saying, “Yes, in Ukraine he had or maybe still has a business. It doesn’t concern us. It concerns the Americans and the Ukrainians. I don’t see anything criminal about this.”
The Russian leader has also sought to highlight possible common ground with Biden — especially over nuclear arms control.
Nuclear arms control
Putin called this month for the last existing nuclear arms control pact between Russia and the U.S. to be saved, proposing to extend the New START treaty that’s set to expire in February. “It would be extremely sad if the treaty ceases to exist,” he said.
The treaty was signed in 2010 by Barack Obama and then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers.
During his long career in the Senate, Biden was a champion of nuclear arms control and he has promised to seek to extend the New START treaty, saying he would likely accept a Russian offer to extend it for five years.