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From Trump to Biden: New Changes in U.S.-Russia Relations

November 15 , 2021 10:10 AM by FENG Shaolei

From the time the dust of the U.S. elections settled to the official inauguration of Joe Biden, the future direction of U.S.-Russian relations was one of the major topics that attracted widespread attention during the two-months of regime change. One of the reasons is not only the old case between the old Cold War rivals, the U.S. and Russia, but also the changing development of the relationship between the two countries still affects the transformation of the global order to a considerable extent.

Cyclical Development of U.S.-Russian Relations and Its Constraints

Looking at contemporary U.S.-Russian relations, there are two vectors: temporal and spatial. From the temporal vector, the evolution of two cycles before and after decades is an important perspective to observe the development trend of U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the past 20 years of Russian President Vladimir Putin's presidency, U.S.-Russian relations have undergone a number of "restarts". At the beginning of Putin's presidency, there was a brief honeymoon period in Russian-US relations due to the September 11 attacks, but it was soon followed by the US unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems in 2002, the Iraq War in 2003, the manipulation of "color revolutions" in the Eurasian region, and the promotion of NATO and the EU. The U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems in 2002, the Iraq War in 2003, the manipulation of "color revolutions" in Eurasia, and the push for NATO and EU expansion to the east stepped on Russia's bottom line and continued to deteriorate. In 2007, Putin gave a strong anti-hegemony speech at the Munich Security Summit, and later struck back in the 2008 Georgia conflict, ending the first wave of U.S.-Russian relations "reboot" in the 21st century. In 2008, Medvedev and Obama were elected president of Russia and the U.S., respectively, beginning the second wave of the "reboot" of U.S.-Russian relations. But the cycle ended with the war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine, followed by Western sanctions that plunged Russia into a serious crisis. 2017 saw Trump come to power and Putin begin a new presidential term in 2018, ushering in a third "reboot" of U.S.-Russian relations, but not before a series of "Russiagate" and "espionage" attacks. But before it could become a climate, it was hit by a series of crises such as "Russiagate" and "spy poisoning", and the brewing U.S.-Russian cooperation ended up with "U.S.-Russian relations at an all-time low".

If we look at the U.S.-Soviet/Russian relations since the end of the Cold War, the cyclical changes seem to be a magnified version of the "three ups and three downs" of the U.S.-Russian relations under Putin. The first round of changes began in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union and initiated comprehensive reforms, during which relations between the Soviet Union and the West improved dramatically for a time. But in the late reform period, the Soviet Union became highly divided and turbulent. As Gorbachev was unable to pick up the pieces and turned to the United States, the Bush administration Sr. responded with perfunctory and implicit ridicule, with the end result being the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second round of change came under Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, and began with Russia's lurch to the West. However, not only did Russia's domestic shock therapy fail during this period, but the West ruthlessly suppressed Russia's ally Yugoslavia, leading to a near "gunfight" with the West in the Kosovo War. The third round is the living drama of the Russian-US relationship, which was repeated again and again after Putin's administration in 2000, when it first became a honeymoon and then a conflict. These cyclical changes show that despite the long-standing confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, there is always the possibility of a "reboot" of bilateral relations. So, a very real question now is: Will the Biden administration bring back the old dream of the U.S. and Russia?

In terms of spatial orientation, the structural environment of Russian-US relations is also an indispensable precondition for analysis.

First, from the point of view of the contrast of power, although Russia has long since ceased to be a superpower like the Soviet Union, the controversy over its power status has never ceased. When Obama failed to "restart" U.S.-Russian relations and when the crisis in Ukraine broke out, he disparaged Russia as a "regional power". It is true that Russia has been in an economic slump for years, with internal and external challenges. However, in the 2020 U.S. News & World Report ranking of the world's great powers, Russia was ranked second, after the United States, and in July of the same year, the University of Denver released a report on its model of state power analysis, showing that Russia was the fourth largest country in the world, after the United States, China and India. At the same time, the U.S. is in a highly divided state domestically due to the Newcastle pneumonia epidemic and the presidential election, which will severely constrain its foreign position. This suggests that changes in the national power of the U.S. and Russia will clearly put constraints on the development process of mutual relations. Second, from the structural basis of great power relations, not only do platforms such as the UN Security Council, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization provide systematic support for Russia's great power status, but also the various forms of trilateral relations between Russia, the United States, Europe, and the United States, which Russia has long operated, provide opportunities for it to leverage its strength. Third, in terms of the information environment and the psychological and cognitive structure of public opinion, on the one hand, the dominance of the West in the international communication sphere and its continuous smearing of Russia's image over the years have led to a rapid deterioration of the Western public's perception of Russia; on the other hand, Russia's criticism of the status quo in the Western world is unprecedented, but at the same time the Russian self-perception shows a state of loneliness but self-confidence. The above-mentioned subjective and objective deep-seated structural environment shows the potential scope for future development of Russian-US relations and the constraints they face.

Tensions in the game of limited compromise in the strategic sphere

Regardless of the controversies over the power position of the U.S. and Russia, the extension of the New START Treaty, which expires on February 5, 2021, is a pressing issue of global concern. Back in 2017, then-President Trump told Putin by phone that the New START treaty, in his view, clearly favored Russia and was "one of the worst agreements negotiated by the Obama administration." At the same time, Trump also refused to renew the New START treaty on the grounds that China refused to participate in the negotiations. On January 27, 2021, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabov said that the U.S. side had agreed to the Russian request for a "five-year extension, without preconditions and without additional elements" regarding the extension of the New START agreement. A day earlier, Putin spoke with Biden to confirm the agreement. According to CNN, Biden believes it is very important to use the extension of the original treaty as a basis for a new agreement on limiting strategic weapons. This provides a common starting point for a new arms control regime, given that the New START treaty succeeded in reducing the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by a third and that the two countries have conducted at least 328 on-site inspections under the framework of the treaty in the past 10 years. Russian nuclear arms control expert Arbatov Jr. believes that once negotiations on a new START treaty begin, the size of what the U.S. and Russia will maintain, what new strategic weapons systems will be included, and how the two sides will act accordingly to advance the negotiations will not only affect U.S.-Russian relations, but will have a significant impact on the overall international security environment.

If there is room for compromise in the area of strategic weapons restrictions, there is little sign of relief on how to deal with the Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002 after ratification by several countries and became one of the last European arms control treaties of any practical effect, with key provisions that allow member states' aircraft to operate over each other's territory without carrying any weapons, landing or taking off from specific airports, etc. The key provision of the treaty is that member states' aircraft can conduct aerial reconnaissance of each other's territory without carrying any weapons, landing or taking off from specific airports, etc., reflecting the political and security trust between the East and West during the end of the Cold War. However, the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty in May 2020 and completed the withdrawal process in November of the same year. A fait accompli shared by the remaining member states after the U.S. withdrawal is that all European members of NATO can still conduct aerial reconnaissance of Russian territory, but U.S. territory is closed to Russia. In light of the evasive attitude of European countries in a dilemma to Russian demands for reciprocity, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on January 15, 2021, the opening of the domestic process of withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. Formally, it appears that there is room for Russia and the parties to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty after a period of domestic proceedings, but all sides are pessimistic. The end of the Open Skies Treaty would not only set back U.S.-Russian relations significantly, but would also lead to a significant deterioration in the overall international security environment.

The Trump administration's treaty-breaking withdrawal has led to a regression in strategic compromise between the U.S. and Russia, and it will be difficult to eliminate a series of deep-seated causes for the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations in the short term after Biden takes office. Therefore, not only is it difficult to quickly restore the destroyed trust and treaties between the U.S. and Russia in a series of important strategic weapons areas, but the strategic confrontation and arms race between the two countries in other areas will still tend to heat up. First, as the Trump-Biden regime changed hands, the U.S. military revealed a series of future deployments aimed directly at China and Russia, with particular emphasis on naval development: prioritizing the training and education of naval soldiers with the Pilot Program; ensuring the maintenance and operational readiness of specific warships; increasing investment in cyber, intelligence, and laser weapons capable of defeating anti-ship cruise missiles; and developing laser weapons capable of defeating anti-ship cruise missiles. The Russian government is also investing in the development of a large mixed fleet of manned and unmanned ships. While Russia currently spends only one-fifteenth of what the United States spends on its military, since the implementation of the military strengthening program in 2010, the Russian military has reached 70 percent of its modern weapons as planned, with several advanced weapons being exclusively Russian. A new large-scale arms race between the U.S. and Russia has already begun to emerge. Second, the U.S.-Russian rivalry is heating up in a number of key areas, notably the confrontation over warming Arctic waters, where in November 2020, during the most sensitive period of the U.S. election, the Russian Navy used a "ramming" warning to remove the USS McCain, a destroyer that had intruded two kilometers into Russian Arctic territorial waters. On January 7, 2021, U.S. Navy Secretary Bretzwetter said in an interview that people would "see the U.S. In an interview on January 7, 2021, U.S. Navy Secretary Bretzwetter said that people will "see a more sustained presence of the U.S. Navy in the Arctic" and that "these types of voyages are similar to those in the South China Sea, and we are looking at freedom of navigation and the ability to operate in international waters, where the United States has the right to operate. In a related development, Russia has stepped up construction of more than 20 ports along the Arctic Ocean in recent years, and now has far more icebreakers than the United States, with more planned. 80 million tons of cargoes by 2024. It goes without saying that Russia's military deployment is rapidly intensifying in a strategic location that offers both economic benefits and the shortest possible distance across the Arctic to strike directly at the U.S. mainland. It can be seen that the U.S. and Russia in the Arctic military deployment is increasingly tense.

The Sanctions Debate Is Hard to End

In the 2016 U.S. election, the Democratic Party believes that the involvement of "Russian hackers" led to a favorable outcome for Trump. Based on this, there was a rare and intense partisan battle within the United States and legislation was passed in Congress to impose tough sanctions on Russia. Even when the United States had a "pro-Russian president" like Trump who had a favorable opinion of Putin, the brutal partisanship led to the collapse of U.S.-Russian relations.

On December 13, 2020, the U.S. announced that hackers had exploited weaknesses in the Sunwind software to break into the computers of several key U.S. government departments and businesses, exposing the information of some 17,000 key customers. In the aftermath, the National Security Agency blamed the hack on "malicious cyber acts supported by the Russian government. Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin said, "This is effectively a declaration of war by Russia against the United States, and we should take it seriously." Another Democratic senator, Chris Coons, said, "It's hard to distinguish this from an act of aggression that rises to the level of a war attack." Republican Senator Rubio went further, saying, "The United States must retaliate, not just impose sanctions." In this context, Biden issued a statement saying that addressing cybersecurity is "a top priority for this administration," adding that "hackers can rest assured that we will respond, and likely do the same." But McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, argued that things are far from simple, that Russia is much stronger today than it was 20 years ago, and much stronger than it was four years ago, and that any strike against Russia is bound to be met with retaliation. Former U.S. Navy intelligence officer Thinker Little noted that in June 2019 The New York Times reported that the United States launched an unprecedented cyberattack on the Russian power grid, implanting malware that would allow the United States to use it to cut off Russia's power grid in a time of crisis. The Sunwind incident was therefore Russia's response to the attack on its power grid to show that "any attempt to tie Moscow's hands could result in a bite to the outstretched U.S. hand. Anatole Levine, a leading scholar at several international think tanks, took a different view, noting that "no one believes that the Sunwind hack was designed to cripple U.S. national systems or disrupt U.S. domestic infrastructure and services. It was purely an information-gathering exercise. Levin argued against viewing the Sunwind incident as an offensive, disruptive act of war, but only as an act of espionage, arguing that all sides should not overreact to it, and preferring what Biden called "doing the same thing" in return to the adversary. Levin also pointed out that the lesson from the Sunwind incident is that the U.S. and Russia need to accelerate the establishment of rules on cybersecurity through negotiations.

The deterioration of relations between the two countries caused by the U.S. sanctions against Russia goes far beyond the back-and-forth hacking cyberattacks and includes the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, and the sanctions will hurt not only U.S.-Russian relations, but also relations between the United States and Germany. It appears that Biden, like Trump, will continue to pressure the Nord Stream 2 project, including the use of sanctions against all third-party companies involved in the project. The last 150 kilometers of the Nord Stream 2 project remain to be laid, and Germany and Russia are actively planning to circumvent U.S. sanctions by establishing an environmentally targeted fund to facilitate implementation of the project. For the U.S., blocking German-Russian energy cooperation is not only about selling more U.S. oil and gas resources to Europe, but also about severing the geo-economic ties between Russia and Europe. The question is how much the U.S. itself will pay for it. "Russia Today has commented that the U.S. government has repeatedly used sanctions in recent years to seriously undermine the reliability of the dollar as a means of saving and payment. According to information released by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), 37.8% of cash transfers in the international payment system were made in euros in October 2020, while cash transfers made in dollars fell to 37.6%. The Biden administration will begin to repair relations with its European allies when it takes office, but the game surrounding the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is a major test for the U.S., Europe and Russia that is difficult to avoid.

Biden Administration's Two-Handed Choice on Russia Strategy

In addition to competing with Russia in the most sensitive areas of military strategy and a domestic consensus on sanctions against Russia that is still difficult to shake, the Biden administration's strategy toward Russia faces difficult choices in many areas. But on the other hand, the dilemma of U.S.-Russian relations may also be an important turning point, depending on how policymakers in both countries grasp it.

First, will the U.S. and Russia continue to fight in the "former Soviet space" or gradually transform it? The presidential election in Belarus, the NK dispute, and even the political changes in Kyrgyzstan are all very interesting. The question is whether these changes in the former Soviet republics are due to "color revolutions" as before, or to the inertia of "imperial logic", or whether another unprecedented change is taking place on the ground. Boldachev, a leading expert of the Russian Valdai Forum, recently pointed out that "even though Russia's military and political influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus is decisive, this does not mean that Russia has to sacrifice its interests and limited resources for the sake of its regional partners." At the same time, "the reduced ability of Russia's Western adversaries to intervene in these regions has prompted Russia to change accordingly." This suggests a significant change in the governance paradigm of the "former Soviet space": if Russia is willing to show some flexibility in other parts of the "former Soviet space" besides Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are vital to its security interests, then Will the West be able to adjust accordingly? In fact, U.S. strategy toward Russia is not static, nor has it always been about encroaching on Russia's sphere of influence. As mentioned above, in almost every "reboot" of U.S.-Russian relations, two main points can be observed: the first is that Europe and the United States do not exert excessive pressure on the Russian neighborhood; the second is that they do not criticize the Russian political system for a certain period of time. Will Russia's important strategic adjustments in the "former Soviet space" be echoed by the Biden administration? Obviously, this will be an important yardstick to test the future direction of U.S.-Russian relations.

Second, returning to the Paris Agreement to address climate change will be an important pillar of the Biden administration's foreign strategy. What will be the interrelationship between climate change and U.S.-Russian relations? On the one hand, there have been numerous media reports in recent times about the warming of the vast tundra in Russia's Far Eastern Siberia, especially near the Arctic Circle, which will likely provide large tracts of arable land. And the melting of the ice and opening of the Northern Passage will also provide Russia with huge economic benefits. On the other hand, it is also a matter of concern that there is a wealth of information indicating that the warming of the tundra in Far Eastern Siberia will also cause great problems for infrastructure, pipeline traffic, and urban construction in this zone, and will probably cause huge losses of nearly $100 billion. According to the observations of Norwegian scholars, 2020 will be the hottest year in Russia in 130 years, with the greatest changes in temperature in the territories of the Arctic Circle. 2020's unusual weather has caused a great deal of concern among Russian people. Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to see whether Russia tends to accelerate its response to the challenges of climate change or whether it favors maintaining its traditional fossil energy-driven economic model. Moreover, the issue of how to deal with climate change is directly related to whether the U.S.-Russian relationship will move closer or further apart.

Third, the new U.S. President Joe Biden will maintain the U.S.-led global order by strengthening the ideology and repairing the alliance system. His main initiatives include the proposed expansion of the G-7 into the "Democracy 10", the "Global Democracy Summit," the revision of the new Atlantic Charter, and the maintenance of support for the Indo-Pacific strategy. The strengthening of alliances and ideological competition in the West will inevitably mean increased pressure on Russia. Russia has clearly felt the change in the attitude of several European countries toward Russia at the moment. However, the United States still needs to cooperate with Russia on issues such as maintaining global strategic stability, dealing with the comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, and opposing terrorism. Excessive pressure on Russia is bound to escalate the bilateral confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, which in turn will lead to further military alliances between Russia and neighboring countries, which is not a sensible choice for the overwhelmed U.S. The point is that the deep-rooted flaws of American-style democracy have been exposed to the world by the impact of the new pneumonia epidemic and the serious domestic confrontation in the U.S. in the presidential election, especially the riots in which the people stormed Congress, which also proves that Russia's criticism of the U.S. over the years is not unjustified. Therefore, it is likely that the Biden administration will seek opportunities for bilateral dialogue while maintaining a tough attitude toward Russia.

Fourth, several Russian affairs experts in high positions in the Biden administration will have a greater influence on the Biden administration's decisions on Russia in the future. It is noteworthy that Biden appointed Newland, who is tough on Russia, as deputy secretary of state in charge of Russia affairs. Newland, who was tough on Russia and spoke out of turn to the European Union during the Ukraine crisis, has apologized for this in the face of high international attention. But at the same time, Biden appointed Burns, who was more qualified and had served as deputy secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to Russia, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Burns advocated coordination with Russia and China to address global challenges, and his tenure as ambassador to Russia coincided with the height of Obama's "reboot" of relations with Russia, and he himself explicitly opposed excessive military dependence in diplomacy, arguing that arms control negotiations with Russia must be based on the "mutual benefit" principle. The principle of mutual benefit. Burns has clearly stated that "NATO's expansion to the east is a bad decision that will lead to the derailment of U.S.-Russian relations." The inclusion of a diverse mix of Russian experts on the Biden administration reflects the fact that the Biden administration's future policy toward Russia is likely to be a combination of both advocating a tough response and seeking opportunities to advance dialogue.

On the whole, although Biden's position on Russia has always been on the negative side, given the multiple internal and external factors, it is unlikely that there will be an Obama-style "reboot" of relations with Russia, but it will not be a Trump-style extreme pressure either. The Biden administration's strategy toward Russia will be based on maintaining its ideological stance, repairing and strengthening alliances to safeguard U.S. geopolitical interests, while seeking opportunities to emerge from the trough of bilateral relations and focusing on resolving the most important internal and external pressures facing the United States. On the Russian side, Russian National Security Council Vice Chairman Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have recently demonstrated a tough stance toward the U.S. This is both a natural expression of frustration with the long-standing recurrence of U.S.-Russian relations and an inevitable backlash against the deep differences between the two sides in terms of strategic interests, institutional orientation and ideology, especially the U.S.'s contemptuous and humiliating attitude toward Russia as a major power over the years. But Russia is equally serious about every important opportunity to potentially improve Russian-U.S. bilateral relations. As the Biden administration takes office, the drama of Russia-U.S. relations opens, and it will take longer to observe and savor the outcome.