Four years ago, dozens of deputies in Russia’s parliament greeted the news of Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton with a round of applause. A few popped a bottle of champagne together. The head of RT, the state-funded television network, said she was so happy that she felt like driving around Moscow with an American flag in the window of her car. Russia’s political class felt pleased with the result and hopeful that the new American President would prove conciliatory, if not downright advantageous, to Russia’s interests.
This election cycle is a different story: ten days after the election and six days since Joe Biden was declared the President-elect, the Russian state continues to be muted in its response. Vladimir Putin has yet to send the usual pro-forma congratulations to Biden. “We believe it would be proper to wait for an official announcement,” Putin’s spokesman said, referring to the Trump campaign’s various legal challenges lodged with U.S. courts. Few politicians are making the rounds to gloat on state television about how things are turning Russia’s way. The subdued mood in Moscow is partly a function of accumulated disappointment and fatigue with Trump and all that his Presidency failed to deliver, as well as a gathering certainty that, however bad relations are now, they aren’t likely to get much better with Biden in charge.
The story of the Russian political élite’s failed dalliance with Trump is a relatively simple one. “The hope came from the fact that Trump was not a product of America’s traditional political corporation, as you might call it—he was strong-willed, idiosyncratic, a nouveau riche in the political sense,” Andrei Klimov, the deputy chair of the foreign-affairs committee in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, said. “He defeated this corporation and, in so doing, many of its ideas on the wisdom of intervention, a unipolar world, and so on.” Trump represented a transactional style of politics, with little emphasis on things such as multilateral institutions or alliances, let alone values and human rights. What wasn’t the Kremlin to like?
The prospect of Trump as the American President was a welcome turn of fortune, leaving Putin and those around him with a feeling of “hitting the jackpot in a casino,” as Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the analysis firm R.Politik, put it. “It wasn’t exactly clear what would come of it, but there was a feeling of possibility all the same—that we have to try and use this opportunity.”
Trump acted, as expected, as a destructive force, harming American influence and credibility—a net positive for the Kremlin—but he proved utterly incapable of delivering on anything on the positive side of the ledger. There was no grand deal—as a number of Russian policymakers briefly allowed themselves to imagine—in which relations would improve, Russia would be brought out of the doghouse, and Ukraine-related U.S. sanctions would be lifted. If anything, the lingering questions surrounding Russian interference in 2016 and Trump’s refusal to confront them meant that the President ended up hemmed in politically, forced to go along with increasingly far-reaching sanctions against Russia passed by Congress.
As the years went by, Trump’s short attention span and unpredictable zigzagging made a strategic approach to Russia-U.S. relations impossible. And, when he did act, his mercantile approach to geopolitics led him to favor policies that were opposed to Russia’s interests, as in the case of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was meant to bring fifty-five billion cubic metres of Russian gas each year to Germany and onward throughout Europe. Trump, like previous U.S. Presidents, pushed Germany and other E.U. states to cancel the energy project; he wagered that Europe would then have no choice but to import American liquified natural gas. “There is not a single person left in the Russian élite who thinks we can achieve anything of substance with Trump as President,” Stanovaya told me.
Hence the dampened enthusiasm for Trump this time around. In addition, the Kremlin was watching the same polls as everyone else: Trump’s chances didn’t look all that good. Officials and political advisers began steadying themselves for a Biden victory. At the same time, the combined effects of the coronavirus pandemic, a fall in global oil prices, a suffering Russian economy, and a decreased appetite among the population for foreign-policy adventurism—the so-called Crimea consensus, which gave a boost to Putin’s popularity after the 2014 annexation, had long lost its appeal—led to a “certain caution, a lack of desire to take risks, the feeling that it’s better not to provoke,” as Andrey Kortunov, the director of the Russian International Affairs Council, explained. The fact that Russia ended up at the unpleasant center of U.S. domestic politics after the last election may have been a factor. “We can only guess,” Kortunov said, “but we can imagine a certain recommendation from on high to not create any more pretexts for being accused of interference. ‘Let’s not set ourselves up.’ ” (To what extent Russia did try and exert covert influence on the 2020 election remains unclear, but so far there have been limited reports of the kinds of interference operations uncovered in the wake of the 2016 contest.)
And so, perhaps, the idea of a Biden Presidency ended up looking like not the worst option for the Kremlin—or, at least, didn’t produce anything like the frantic dread with which many in Moscow awaited a Clinton victory in 2016. Biden represents a return to a familiar status quo ante: relations will be bad and largely unproductive, but they’ll have an aura of reassuring familiarity. The systemization and ritual of bilateral relations, even if they have a negative tone, is preferable to many Russian foreign-policy professionals, and, as for the siloviki, the hard-liners from the security services, a more confrontational relationship with the U.S. isn’t an entirely bad thing, in that it gives them a potential argument for greater autonomy and influence with Putin. In any case, the wager on Trump and the politics of personality has revealed its limits. “Relations with Trump were personal, based on chemistry and emotions,” Stanovaya said. “Whereas with Biden you aren’t so much establishing relations with a person but, rather, with a whole system.”
Throughout his career in the Senate and as Vice-President, Biden positioned himself as a standard-bearer of the center-left school of foreign policy which sees America as vocal, energetic, and present—a superpower with superpower responsibilities. In 2018, Biden co-authored an article for Foreign Affairs laying out a tough Russia policy, arguing that the U.S. should not cede to Russia’s “sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space and be prepared to enact more muscular sanctions. Western countries, the article argues, “must agree to impose meaningful costs on Russia when they discover evidence of its misdeeds.” During the campaign, Biden spoke of restoring the U.S. leadership role in NATO and returning an emphasis on democratic values to American foreign policy. Many of his advisers served in government during the Obama Administration and were left with a sour taste for Russia from Putin’s behavior on their watch, from the annexation of Crimea to interference in the 2016 election. “It’s not just rational; it’s also very emotional,” a high-ranking Western diplomat in Washington told the Financial Times, of the Biden camp’s distaste for Russia.
None of this is lost on those following along in Moscow. “I can’t say that the people who were victorious are our friends,” Klimov, the Russian senator, said. “But they are known entities. We understand who they are and what they will do.” More sanctions against Russia are likely under Biden. Meanwhile, the U.S. is sure to take a more active position in Ukraine and Syria, two hot spots from which it effectively retreated under Trump and where Russia sees its own influence as paramount. Some sort of standoff over Belarus—where protests continue, following the contested reëlection, in August, of its longtime dictator, Alexander Lukashenka—is likely, even inevitable. Russia has backed Lukashenka, not so much to keep him in power but to make sure that, if he exits, it happens on Russia’s terms. Trump essentially ignored the issue, whereas Biden has said that he will support Lukashenka’s opponent. Just about the only cause for optimism in Moscow is arms control—the New START treaty, limiting each country’s nuclear arsenal, is set to expire in February, and Biden has said that he will prioritize its extension, which could produce a productive dialogue with Russia in the early days of his Administration, however narrow.
At this point, Putin, now awaiting the fifth American President of his more-than-twenty-year rule, seems to have grown set in his suspicion and cynicism, sure that there’s no point in expecting anything very positive from a new U.S. leader. “He’s come to believe that you can’t reach a serious agreement with the United States about much of anything,” Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs and a well-connected figure in Moscow foreign-policy circles, said. “Whatever he has tried to propose, whether on cybersecurity or missile defense, has been greeted with a reaction of ‘Yeah, come on, what a bunch of nonsense,’ from the American side.”