The US presidential elections regularly raise the question of how perceptions of the president-elect influence Russian-American relations. Each new political cycle of American politics is accompanied by hopes for a change for the better. This was the case after the victory of Donald Trump, who was portrayed as a Kremlin agent by the “witnesses of Russian meddling”. It was also the case with Barack Obama, whose empathy and youth were considered a good basis for dialogue. The same has been true of many other presidents. Soon enough, the hopes faded. Even if friendly ties developed between the leaders, the structure and mechanism of foreign policy eventually undermined their initial positive sentiments.
Joseph Biden, who won the recent elections, is rare among the presidents-elect of the past few decades in that he has failed to inspire false hopes and expectations in Moscow. Biden is an experienced and professional politician who has directly or indirectly influenced policy towards the USSR and Russia for almost half a century. Observers needn’t harbour any illusions about a “fresh look” at Russia. Biden won’t alter the structure of Russo-American relations or the basic constants of US foreign policy regarding Russia. We need to soberly assess the nature of our relations, as well as the strategic objectives of the American administration’s actions.
For the United States, Russia is one of the key and most dangerous rivals. Despite the weakness of its economy, the Russian Federation is a large military power that makes decisions on its own and is ready to defend them. Although Russia is inferior to the USSR in terms of its ideological, military, and, especially, economic influence, it is also important as a participant in possible anti-American coalitions. So far, Washington is turning a blind eye to the prospect of an alliance between Russia and China. The latter is also considered a key rival by the United States, albeit of a different kind. The initial premise seems to be that such an alliance is not yet in the interests of both Moscow and Beijing. It seems that the US is confident that it is possible to successfully contain and gradually grind both countries. Moreover, Russia-China policy in the military-political sphere is still far from what could be characterised as an alliance.
From the American point of view, Russia poses a threat or challenge to the United States in most azimuths: in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as in key functional areas—nuclear, digital, space, etc. At the same time, there are very few areas where Russia is vitally important, or at least, simply, important for the United States. At best, we are talking about maintaining a dialogue on arms control, cooperation in the Arctic, episodic interaction in the fight against terrorism, an unclear partnership on climate, remnants of interaction in space and very limited economic ties. The Russian diaspora in America has long been integrated with the rest of the country and does not represent a lobbying force on its own.
In his relations with Russia, Joe Biden and his administration will work towards the following strategic objectives:
1. Containing Russia and balancing its military potential as a minimum task and achieving complete superiority in all key types of weapons and military technologies as a maximum task. Strictly speaking, the maximum task is not mandatory here. Even if the US lags behind in some new types of weapons, it is unlikely to allow Russia to radically change the balance of power, undermine US security and receive some serious dividends. In the best case, this will allow Moscow to preserve its own security and occasionally interfere with the United States in achieving local objectives. At the same time, the ideal task for the United States in this area, apparently, is the radical disarmament of Russia on the model of Germany in 1945. This can be achieved either by military defeat of Russia, or as a result of a radical shock to its political system and subsequent alteration from inside. The first scenario shouldn’t be discounted, but the cost to the United States would be significant. The second scenario is cheaper and safer, especially given the experience of the collapse and self-destruction of the USSR. Hence the second task being considered more important.
2. The loosening of the Russian political regime. Its implementation is often associated with the financing of the opposition, the indoctrination of certain “pro-Western” audiences, information warfare, etc. But this is only part of the picture, and not the most important one. All these measures can be considered only as bacilli, which lack the potential to harm a healthy body. The Soviet Union did not collapse because of these factors, although they did exist. It collapsed under the weight of its own problems, their neglect and the subsequent loss of control over them. Washington may proceed from the assumption that the same scenario can work with modern Russia. It is enough not to interfere with the further flourishing of its systemic problems— corruption, dubious management efficiency, and problems with the rule of law. Ardent fighters against “Western meddling” will only help this goal. Like Brezhnev’s cadres, they will clean up the initiative, bureaucratise the system, and further undermine the law for the sake of imaginary security. Supporters of the cleansing of everything and everyone are the best allies of the United States in solving this problem.
3. Economic and technological containment of Russia. This task can be successfully resolved through sanctions and restrictions on trade, investment, finance and technology. However, this is only part of the problem. Even before the big quarrel with the United States and the West in 2014, Russia could not overcome its peripheral economic status, even despite the presence of significant financial resources, access to world capital markets, and other benefits. The situation is more complicated today. The market conditions are much less favourable, and the political risks for foreign economic relations are becoming higher. It is enough for the USA only to gradually warm up the “milk in the boiler”.
All this, of course, does not exclude cooperation or at least interaction on certain issues. Here there are separate spheres: business cooperation, educational projects, and human contacts. The two realities may well coexist. But politics will inevitably return to the three “great coordinates” of Russian-American relations, indicated above. Even if Russia decides to make large concessions on the Donbass or other issues, they are unlikely to change this vector. The anti-Russia narrative is firmly rooted in the United States. This means that any concessions for the sake of a nominal improvement in relations with Washington are unacceptable.
What should Russia do in such a situation?
1. Maintain and develop its defence potential, taking into account the latest global achievements in science and technology. This is a time-consuming and costly task. Many weapons systems do not allow for the resolution of current foreign policy tasks. But they guarantee that at a certain stage, Moscow will not witness the fate of Belgrade in 1999. Russia has the ability to asymmetrically contain the United States, even if the latter is superior.
2. Consistently build a state based on the rule of law, openness of society, and high management efficiency. It will be more difficult to shatter such a state from the outside, no matter how active propaganda, information warfare and intelligence operations are. Cleansing and excessive “verticalisation” will give the illusion of security. But, in reality, they will undermine it.
3. Maintain ties with the global economy, with the understanding that globalisation is shrinking under the influence of political competition from major powers. This means the need to diversify trade ties, and self-reliance in strategic industries.
In any event, these measures are of a purely defensive nature. Are offensive actions possible? Certainly. Moreover, they are unlikely to copy the American tasks. We can hardly beat Washington in absolute terms of power. The American political system has a large margin of safety, foiling attempts to try to undermine it using the same means that the Americans themselves use against their opponents. It will also be difficult for us to build viable global economic alternatives. What remains?
First of all, Russia must play on the trends of changes in modern international relations. Among them are the rise of the PRC, the instability of anti-Chinese coalitions, competition between technological platforms, changes in ideological coordinates and values, etc. Furthermore — to carry out a targeted, but at the same time concentrated impact in the regions and functional areas in which Russia has gained experience and has a foundation for active policymaking. Finally, the attractiveness and competitiveness of the Russian model itself, its value system and the way of life are also important. Solving this problem necessitates that Russia recognise and rediscover its own identity. It will take time, patience and a lot of work, which cannot always be reduced to ceremonial events and PR stunts. But it is Russia’s identity which promises to offer dividends for years and decades to come.
First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.