The conspicuous reticence on Moscow’s part to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory in the US presidential election was bound to get noticed internationally. That prompted Moscow to explain its stance.
The Kremlin explanation is that since President Donald Trump has announced “certain legal procedures,” it decided that “it’s right to wait for the official results of the elections to be announced.”
The labored explanation became necessary since Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick on his feet to congratulate Trump on his election victory in 2016. But it raises more questions than it answers.
Can it be that Moscow reads the tea leaves differently? Trump is in a combative mood and three out of nine Supreme Court judges are his hand-picked nominees. If he widens the gyre of his “resistance” by organizing public rallies by his supporters – who comprise one-half of America – events may take unexpected turns.
The firing of defense secretary Mark Esper signals that Trump is determined to exercise the power he wields.
However, backchannels must be at work with Biden’s circle. The delay in officially congratulating Biden is not inhibiting Moscow from probing the likely trajectory of a Biden presidency. The track 2 circuit is very active.
Moscow chooses to be cautiously optimistic. Since US-Russia relations have touched rock bottom, things can only improve. A Moscow pundit cited Mark Twain’s famous observation that Wagner music was not as bad as it sounded and Biden’s Russia policy may not be as “hard” as his public remarks might suggest.
A sister publication of the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta carried a feature article illustrated with lavish photographs drawn from the Soviet archives highlighting that Biden is no stranger to the Kremlin.
Biden received high-level attention from the Soviet leadership on his very first visit to the USSR in 1973, only a year after becoming a senator.
Moscow has every reason to expect that Biden, being a highly experienced practitioner of diplomacy, will restore the diplomatic channels, rebooting the two embassies that have been inert like beached carcasses in recent years.
Moscow expects the return of adults to the US foreign-policy team, which makes it possible to resume quiet conversations.
Indeed, the names that are doing the rounds – Susan Rice, William Burns, etc – are old familiar faces.
A curious thing about Russian-American relations is that historically, even when things were stormy, conversations between professionals never tapered off and, in fact, they immensely helped when cataclysmic situations erupted out of the blue, such as the Cuban missile crisis in the John F Kennedy presidency or the shooting down of the U-2 spy plane over Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency.
Moscow can count on the abiding interest Biden has shown throughout his political career regarding the subject of arms control. And it so happens that the 2011 New START agreement, the lone surviving US-Russia arms pact, is due to expire on February 5 unless both parties extend it – for up to another five years – which is easy if only the two presidents agree to do so.
But such renewal, which is all but certain to happen, will inevitably trigger the commencement of negotiations for a new arms-control treaty to bring on board the phenomenal changes in the nuclear-capable forces of the two countries through the past two decades.
The good part will be that an intense US-Russia engagement will ensue on issues of global strategic balance and regional and international security.
If history is any guide, arms-control talks invariably open more doors for some “situational cooperation” on other issues – in the contemporary setting, for example, on Iran’s nuclear and missile development program.
But if Iran is brought up, can Syria or Persian Gulf security be far behind? Without overestimating the opportunities, they cannot be altogether discounted, either. With 36 years in the Senate and another eight years in the White House, Biden doubtless has a good grasp of the importance of US-Russia relations and ought to be aware that the current state of affairs is simply untenable.
In theory, Biden can act tough on Russia, but in practical terms, the options are few if the crisis enveloping the US is taken into account in its totality. Biden has voiced criticism that Trump was “soft” on Russia sanctions.
But then, Trump has skimmed the milk of sanctions to such an extent that any further ratcheting up – for example, on imports of Russian oil and gas or a ban on the use of dollars by Russian banks – would also come at a heavy financial and economic price for the US.
Bringing Russia to its knees may be a charming little idea, but collateral damage would be significant. Nonetheless, Biden will be very critical on Russia’s human-rights record. It is possible that Washington may come out with a new list of “Navalny sanctions” or with a more rigorous application of the Magnitsky Act.
The ‘known unknown’
Russia will be watching closely Biden’s attempt to resuscitate the trans-Atlantic alliance, but has no reason to be jumpy on that score. Putin has a steady interlocutor in Emmanuel Macron and France keeps underscoring the importance of dialogue between the West and Russia.
The Trump administration did not hesitate to use sanctions to slow down the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project from Russia to Germany. But will Biden pressure German Chancellor Angela Merkel to abandon the nearly completed gas pipeline? Moscow could bank on German industry’s high stakes in the project.
Again, Trump has an excellent rapport with the far-right Polish leadership, but that may not last under Biden. Will Biden relegate the matter of American bases in Poland to the back burner? Simply put, much remains in the realm of the “known unknown.”
To be sure, the Biden administration will challenge Russia in its so-called “near abroad.” This may be evident soon in Belarus. Biden was involved in the regime-change project in Ukraine in 2014 and a more consistent US support for Ukraine is also to be expected.
But Russia can learn to live with it.
The single biggest discouraging factor would be that there is no chemistry between Biden and Putin. A structured Biden-Putin summit is highly unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future.
The two leaders may meet at best on the sidelines of some international events. Therefore, while some moderate progress may happen in the strategic area, no breakthrough can be expected.
Biden sees China as a strategic competitor but regards Russia as a foe. The sense in Moscow appears to be that Biden might seek some accommodation with China to focus on Russia.
Putin in no hurry
However, even if Biden reaches some trade agreement with America’s “peer competitor,” it will not arrest the geopolitical, technological and other rivalries between the two superpowers.
And there are limits to what the US can do to push China into a corner. Suffice to say, Biden cannot break the China-Russia partnership, which is important for both Moscow and Beijing.
All in all, it is not surprising that Putin is in no hurry to congratulate Biden. As a German analyst put it: “Putin is waiting to see whether the Biden-Harris administration becomes Team Obama 3.0 or pursues a tougher line.”
Putin would have mixed feelings about Biden. He would know Biden doesn’t like him, but that shouldn’t perturb him particularly. Importantly, Putin was disdainful toward the Barack Obama-Joe Biden administration and regarded it as weak and indecisive.
What concerns Putin most would be whether Biden would show the grit to find breakthrough solutions to the unresolved issues in the relationship.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.