20 years under Putin: a timeline

Former Vice President Joseph Biden has recently emerged as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee who will face Donald Trump in November. Even though the outcome of the 2020 presidential election could not be more unclear, it is time to ask a question: what would a Biden presidency mean for US-Russia relations?


In recent weeks, Joe Biden received a number of key endorsements from his former competitors in the Democratic primaries, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as from President Barack Obama. Photo: Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia Commons).


Few elections are decided by foreign policy issues. Despite the revelations of “Russia-gate,” Donald Trump’s impeachment sparked by a conversation with the president of Ukraine, and a six-day armed confrontation with Iran, foreign policy issues did not receive much attention during the Democratic Party’s primary process. When they did come up, these questions focused mainly on trade, China, the withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East, and terrorism. Although Russia has become a toxic topic in US political discourse, the country remains an important player in international politics, and if Joe Biden is elected president, he will be forced to deal with its “malignant influence.”


Biden is a liberal internationalist

Much of Biden’s campaign focused on his 40-plus years of experience both as a two-term vice president and as a long-time senator. Biden specifically highlighted his statesmanship and foreign policy expertise. He was the Obama administration’s point man on Iraq and Ukraine, and spent almost twenty years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden’s approach to foreign policy is rooted in liberal internationalism: the cooperative worldwide pursuit of progress—meaning increasing peace and harmony—through the building of supranational organizations and the strengthening of the international legal order. More simply, it is rooted in a belief in the value of allies, international organizations, and the rule of law. 

Although it prioritizes diplomatic efforts, liberal internationalism allows for the use of force against sovereign states in pursuit of liberal goals. Over his long career, Biden has endorsed different military operations including the bombing of Serbia and Montenegro during the Kosovo War, the 2002 invasion of Iraq (which he now regrets), NATO aid to rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Biden has been clear that military force cannot be used for the purposes of regime change, but has not ruled out the use of force for humanitarian purposes and pre-emptive protection of American interests at home and abroad.  

For Putin, it is likely that a Biden presidency will mean an end to false moral equivalencies, the strengthening of existing alliance structures, maintenance of the sanctions regime, and a further confrontation between democratic and authoritarian norms. While Biden seems to understand well the basic outline of Putin’s regime, he risks underestimating Putin’s popularity.


Fewer opportunities to invoke a false moral equivalency

Donald Trump stunned many when he not only expressed “respect” for Vladimir Putin during a 2017 interview with Fox News, but also defended the Russian president by asserting that the US was equally marred by misdeeds, saying: “You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” Trump has repeatedly praised Putin’s leadership, popularity, and “strong control over his country.” When the two leaders had their first bilateral summit in Helsinki in 2018, Trump sided with Putin, asserting, against information provided by his own intelligence community, that Russia had not interfered in the US presidential election.

Trump’s deference has been symbolically valuable to Putin’s regime because it suggests both that Russia is the US’s equal and that there is no real difference between the values that drive American politics and the values that drive Russian politics. Trump’s rhetoric and actions feed a false moral equivalence: all countries have murderers; democracies are just as flawed as other kinds of political systems; there are no clean hands in international politics. Russian elites and media often make similar claims. For example, when asked recently about the violent treatment of Russian protesters by police, a Kremlin spokesman said that protesters in America get shot.

While Russia may continue to employ a narrative focused on highlighting the problems of Western democracies, Biden is unlikely to provide them with rhetorical kindling to add to the fire. Biden has called Trump’s remarks in Helsinki “shameful” and went further than any member of the Obama administration in explicitly labeling Putin a “dictator.”

Much of Biden’s foreign policy rejects the basic premise of false moral equivalencies, and is underpinned by the idea that America’s democratic system is both special and exemplary. He has argued that America should be prepared to lead internationally “not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” a phrase borrowed from Bill Clinton. This idea expressly undercuts any efforts that seek to equate the quality of American and Russian political systems and repositions the US on the international moral high ground.


Strengthened alliances

Since coming to office, Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration with international organizations and traditional allies. Just recently, in the midst of the global pandemic, Trump announced a halt to funding for the World Health Organization in order to review its “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus.” Trump has repeatedly complained that NATO members do not pay enough to the organization, and even suggested that the US may not meet its mutual defense obligations if other members do not increase their contributions. He has called the alliance “obsolete.” He has claimed that the European Union was set up to “take advantage of the US,” showed open disdain for other world leaders at a G7 meeting, made disparaging remarks about the World Trade Organization, and refused to engage in important meetings on climate change and health care at the United Nations. For Trump, America’s allies are little more than weak states seeking to exploit a great nation.

Trump’s disdain for established international organizations and allies dovetails with Putin’s opinion of international organizations. Russia has long opposed NATO expansion, a topic that became even more volatile after the Baltic states joined in 2004, bringing the alliance to Russia’s border. Similarly, the European Union’s offers of economic partnerships to Georgia and Ukraine have directly competed with Russia’s own attempts at economic integration of the former Soviet states. Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution was sparked by the unpopular choice of President Viktor Yanukovych to forgo an association agreement with the EU in favor of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Russia’s membership in the G8 was suspended after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Trump reportedly lobbied for Russia’s membership to be restored and even told leaders of the (again) G7 that Crimea belonged to Russia because “everyone who lives there speaks Russian.” At the beginning of 2020, Putin introduced reforms to the constitution that would secure the primacy of Russian law over international treaties and the decisions of international bodies. The country already has a poor record when it comes to enforcing the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and withdrew from the International Criminal Court in 2016. 

Unlike Trump, Biden has made strengthening traditional alliance structures and increasing the resilience of America’s partners cornerstones of his foreign policy plans. According to his campaign site, “A Biden administration will do more than restore [the US] historic partnerships: it will lead the effort to reimagine them for the future.” Although Biden supported Russia’s integration into the World Trade Organization, the Council of Europe, and the International Monetary Fund, he has spoken out against “spheres of influence.” At the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2009, speaking pointedly about Russia’s support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separatist territories in Georgia supported by Russia), Biden said: “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” Biden’s emphasis on the attractive power of alliances will likely come up against not only Russia’s claims to Crimea but to also its ambitions for influence in the “near abroad” and over Russian-speaking compatriots inhabiting a larger russkiy mir (“Russian World”).


Continuity of sanctions 

Russia has faced a series of US and EU sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014. It has responded with countersanctions aimed at individuals and imports from sanctioning states. Broadly, sanctions are meant to incentivize a change in policy or the behavior of a state by targeting sectors of the economy or particular associates of the ruling regime. The Threat and Imposition of Economic Sanctions (TIES) dataset, which spans 1945-2005, shows that states acquiesced to sanctions in only 37.5 percent of all cases. Scholars and analysts therefore remain divided over their efficacy. Although it is unclear whether sanctions will “work” on Russia, research has shown that, at the very least, sanctions do not drive up support for the regime as some American politicians feared, and that they may complicate the buttressing of political support for Putin by limiting resources that can be distributed to loyalists.

Economic sanctions have been described as the Trump administration’s “foreign-policy weapon of choice.” Since Trump took office, the United States has, year over year, added markedly more people, companies, and entities to the sanctions list managed by the Treasury Department. Most of this attention has been devoted to Iran, China, and Venezuela. 

When it comes to Russia, the White House and Congress have often appeared at odds over the approach to sanctions. Sanctions against Russia related to Ukraine, enacted first by the Obama administration, were codified in 2017 by the adoption of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which Trump signed into law. The White House expanded sanctions on Russia in 2018 in response to cyberattacks and election interference. Trump has often claimed that “no one has been tougher to Russia” than him. Yet, he has also been vocal about his hopes for improved relations with Putin and repeatedly refused to accept evidence of Russia’s election meddling. In 2019, Congress had to issue a joint resolution of disapproval to stop the Trump administration from lifting sanctions on Russian aluminum companies. More recently, the Trump administration opposed a planned package of sanctions against Russia put forward by Congress in response to the Kerch Strait confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian vessels. Trump has also allowed for discussing the lifting of sanctions with Putin amid the coronavirus crisis.

Biden’s foreign policy approach is unlikely to lead to a lifting of sanctions on Russia. First, Biden was deeply involved in convincing European partners to institute a sanctions regime against Russia in the first place. He is therefore cognizant of the costs of sanctions both on the target state but also on the issuing parties, and would be unwilling to abandon this complex agreement without seeing concrete results. Second, Biden has commented about Russia’s continued malign influence. On his last visit to Ukraine as vice president in 2017, Biden urged the Trump administration to maintain sanctions against Russia because of its “continued aggression” toward eastern Ukraine. Lastly, Biden views sanctions not only as a method for altering the behavior of a state in the near term, but also as a tool for long-term change: “Maintaining the sanctions that the United States and the EU levied on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine has been important not only in pressuring Moscow to resolve the conflict in the near term but also as a signal to the Kremlin that the costs of such behavior will eventually outweigh any perceived benefits.”


Democracy versus authoritarianism

Biden views advancing authoritarianism and democratic backsliding to be the twin core issues facing the world today. If elected, in his first year as president he has promised to host a Summit for Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” The goals of the summit would be to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism, and advance human rights at home and abroad. It is unclear whether Russia would be invited to participate in such a summit, but greater global attention to issues of corruption, electoral integrity, and human rights is unlikely to be a welcome development for Putin.   

For some time, scholars and commentators have documented the global spread of the authoritarian toolkit—a collection of practices that erode democratic norms. The toolkit includes both traditional and digital elements, such as laws that stifle freedom of speech and association, increased online surveillance and censorship, the expansion of executive powers at the expense of parliaments, the curbing of judicial independence, as well as greater suspicion of and limits on international and domestic civil society organizations. Russia and China are often cited as being the main exporters of such practices, which have emerged in an array of diverse countries from Poland to Hungary to Brazil and the Philippines. Writing for The Atlantic, well-respected Stanford professor Larry Diamond argues that Putin has made a target of liberal democracy and has sought to “subvert, corrupt, and confuse it wherever he can.”

Biden’s plan to label the problem of authoritarian resurgence as one of the key foreign policy priorities for the US differentiates him significantly from Trump, who has repeatedly espoused admiration for authoritarian leaders. It also sets the US on a path of direct confrontation with some of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy practices, including propaganda campaigns, the ousting of democracy-promoting organizations, and the funding of extreme far-right and far-left political parties abroad. This, combined with greater emphasis on established democratic alliances, would not bode well for Russia.


Biden on Russia

It is clear that Biden’s foreign policy is not only starkly different to Trump’s, but would also have significant consequences for Russia and Putin. Biden seems to have a sober understanding of the many features of contemporary Russia’s authoritarian system—from the harassment of opposition politicians and activists, to limits on freedom of expression, the “choreographed” nature of elections, and efforts to maintain a “democratic façade.” Yet, he believes that Putin’s power remains “brittle at the core” with “shallow roots” and that without a repressive apparatus Putin’s regime would “descend in a storm of boos and whistles.” This demonstrates a serious and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of the nature and foundation of Putin’s regime.

In their recent book, Putin v The People, Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene suggest that “co-construction” lies at the heart of Putin’s endurance: “Dictators, we generally assume, rule despite the masses, who, given the opportunity, would gladly kick them out of office. Although true in some places, this is hardly the case in Russia. Vladimir Putin’s rule is not forced on an oppressed and unwilling public, but is jointly built—co-constructed—through a process of political struggle involving Putin, his opponents and tens of millions of supporters.” Biden seems to miss this point. If elected president, he would be facing not “Putin’s Russia,” but “Russia’s Putin.” And assuming that a political system that has been built and strengthened over twenty years has “shallow roots” is not a sound basis on which to construct good foreign policy. 

Russia’s political system is not immutable. Protests are common, voters punish unpopular politicians, and Putin’s popularity ratings are based on citizens’ evaluations. But while Trump routinely underestimates Putin’s global aspirations, Biden would do well not to downplay the true foundations of Putin's support.