The COVID-19 epidemic has directed most of the publicity towards China instead of ‘the Russians did it’ trope being usually predominant; even though reports of Russian attempts to delegitimise the Oxford vaccine and rumours of Putin supposedly having Parkinson’s have hardly gone unnoticed. Apart from this, Russia’s own ambitiously titled ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine project has shown some early success – reportedly having a 92% rate of effectiveness. If true, the manner in which the US and the rest of the West approach the recurring villainy of international relations may cause revision.
The possibility of this happening could not be more appropriate with the departure of Donald Trump as US president, the seemingly more ‘safe’ Joe Biden replacing him. It has been constantly interpreted that Trump was appeasing towards Putin – the top priority first established between the two leaders being that of counter-terrorism. But the structural elements of international relations, along with the inherent bitterness between the two nations historically, soon reversed the apparent amicability. The issues of Syria and Crimea well known to Putin and inherited by Trump from Obama have had little progress since 2017. But even describing the last three years of US-Russian relations as one of stagnation is putting it lightly. Only two months after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the US military made its first public accusation of Russia launching a land-based cruise missile, an expression of American strongmanship equal to the Russian approach under Putin. Nor do Russians themselves view Trump with optimism, with only 20% having confidence in his handling of international affairs, according to the Pew Research Center. If anything, US-Russian relations under Trump have been characterised by open hostility rather than the sugarcoated antagonism often present in diplomacy.
The end of Trump’s premiership leaves more questions than answers for which direction the US will now take towards Russia. The question is not whether Trump’s approach was correct but rather what US foreign policy will consist of now. In comparison, Biden’s policy towards China is likely to be neither a continuation of Trump’s policies nor a return to the Obama administration he once served in. As Bloomberg News duly noted, Biden’s grand strategy towards the world’s second largest economy will be ‘more like a change of tactics than a strategy overhaul’. The same could be said for the US’s attempts to tame the Russian bear along with the Chinese dragon.
Foresight is better than hindsight, especially when trying to predict what a Biden presidency will entail for US-Russian relations before it has even begun. Yet, there are already some writings on the wall of what is to come. Putin’s refusal to congratulate Biden upon the first signs of his victory in November’s election was interpreted by many as a display of Moscow’s preference for Trump’s unorthodoxy, even though Putin and his defenders would argue it was a move of pragmatism. Even so, Putin’s memory – unlike the masses – is one that rarely forgives and forgets easily (especially when it comes to his pen). When it comes to Biden, the Russians don’t have to dig too far in the past to have reasons for disliking Biden’s diplomatic approach. Only in last October did Biden state that the ‘biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our security and our alliances is Russia’. Then again, anything said during the election period should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially when it is beyond outlandish. Russia however will not appreciate nor quickly forget Biden’s remarks, whether or not they are correct.
The omnipresent shadow of possible Russian interference in Western affairs – whether it was the US election, Brexit, or something else – will also continue to be on the agenda. For Biden, it has become personal – claiming, without evidence, that his son Hunter was the victim of a Russian disinformation campaign. The Mueller report, on the other hand, will have less importance now that Trump is leaving the presidency and the Democrats having achieved their objective of securing the White House. Republicans such as Devin Nunes will no doubt continue to seek answers the report has left hanging in the air, especially in regards to the disappearance of the mysterious professor Joseph Mifsud. Regardless, it is far too late now to conceal the fractures that now define US-Russian relations.
The hostility between the two nations is thus likely to maintain its current continuity; the Biden administration offering little in ways to improve the current status quo. Contrary to Trump, who was seen as potentially offering a new direction for US foreign policy (whether or not for the best), Biden’s administration will be a return to the politics of old that defined the more calmer activities of the Obama administration. Perhaps this is a safe bet, but it may potentially fuel the revisionist approach rising powers such as Russia adopt as an attempt to alter the international order. Putin claims that the liberalism that defines it has ‘become obsolete’. The irony is that it may do so through a desperate return to the events that existed prior to Trump’s election in 2016. Any method available to sustain liberalism can only be found by looking forward into the future rather than into the past. Only time will tell if Biden, as president, chooses the former or the latter.