By RFE RL
By Todd Prince*
(RFE/RL) — If he wins another four years in the White House in the election on November 3, U.S. President Donald Trump may make a new push to mend Washington’s severely strained relations with Moscow, doubling down on an effort that was swiftly stymied after he took office in 2017.
Democratic challenger Joe Biden has vowed, if elected, to take a tough stance toward Russia on issues ranging from its human rights record at home to its assertive actions abroad, including the alleged election meddling that haunted Trump’s first term from the start.
Despite the differences, analysts say that the prospects for warmer ties are faint and that relations — which sunk to post-Cold War lows following Moscow’s interference in Ukraine in 2014 and may have declined further since then — could get worse, regardless of who wins.
During his 2016 campaign and early in his presidency, Trump promised to improve long-damaged ties, suggesting that he could get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and could negotiate with Moscow more effectively than his rivals and predecessors.
“You want to make a good deal for the country, you want to deal with Russia — and there’s nothing wrong with not fighting everybody, having Russia where we have a good relationship as opposed to all the stupidity that’s taken place, Trump said in February 2016.
While he seems to have succeeded in establishing warm relations with Putin — a source of ire and concern among his critics — he has not succeeded in shoring up ties with Russia, which have arguably eroded further since he took office.
The U.S. election may do little to improve the mood, analysts say, and it could potentially usher in an even tenser period in relations between the two nuclear-armed states, whether it’s Trump or Biden who wins.
Biden, who was vice president under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, has shown no interest in befriending Putin. He has said that he will not “cozy up” to authoritarian leaders and labeled Putin’s Russia an “opponent” of the United States.
Biden has drawn attention to alleged human rights violations under Putin, vowed to strengthen NATO — in part to protect allies from potential Russian — and, if elected, threatened to punish the Kremlin if U.S. intelligence agencies conclude that it interfered in the 2020 election.
“They’ll pay a price for [election interference], and it’ll be an economic price,” Biden said on September 17 during a town hall meeting with voters, one of many warnings he has issued about Russia since announcing his candidacy last year.
Biden’s language sometimes stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s. While Trump has asserted that he has been tougher on Russia than previous presidents including Obama were, he has refrained from criticizing Putin on a host of issues, including alleged interference in Western elections, pressure on neighboring countries, and human rights violations in Russia.
If he is reelected, the Republican Trump may press ahead with efforts to overcome an array of obstacles and improve relations with Moscow, analysts say, reasoning that he may view a second election victory as handing him a strong mandate to pursue his goals.
However, he could once again face steep opposition in Congress, where opponents may fear he would seek to mend ties with Moscow at the expense of what they see as the interests of the United States or of other countries, such as Ukraine.
In the elections on November 3, Democrats are expected to retain control the House of Representatives and have a shot at winning control of the Senate, in which Republicans now hold a majority.
“If Trump wins, then I think the victory will be responded to by Congress, and Russia will be ‘punished’ for that victory,” Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said during an October 1 conference organized by the think tank.
Trenin said he expected “further deterioration” of the relationship regardless of who wins the presidency.
Trump inherited tense U.S.-Russia ties. Relations had worsened sharply during Obama’s second term after Putin, who had stepped aside and steered the more Western-friendly Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency for four years, returned to the Kremlin in 2012.
They were frayed even further when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and backed separatists it had helped incite against Kyiv’s rule in eastern Ukraine, leading to a war that has killed more than 13,000 people and still simmers.
The United States and other Western countries responded with sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia, such as kicking it out of the Group of Eight (G8), a talking shop for leading industrialized countries that Russia was admitted to in the 1990s.
In a move earlier this year that shone a spotlight on his differences with Biden, the Democrats, and many U.S. allies on how to handle Russia, Trump called for bringing Moscow back in to the G7, saying it was “common sense” to have Putin “in the room” rather than shutting him out.
Opponents and analysts who are critical of Trump suspect that in a second term, he might be willing to recognize a Russian right to exert influence over neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus in exchange for Kremlin help on issues of greater importance to him, including political change in Venezuela and containing the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Russia has influence with all three countries.
In an April 2016 interview, Trump said it would be a “tremendous thing” if the United States could “make a great deal” with Russia. He gave no specifics about what might be on the table.
“I think the biggest fear is that, should he win a second term, President Trump would double down on what he might give to Putin,” Jonathan Katz, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, told RFE/RL.
Trump might decide “there are things such as spheres of influence,” he said.
William Courtney, a Russia analyst at the Washington-based think tank RAND Corp, said that while Congress could condemn any such recognition of spheres of influence, Trump could take steps to make it reality, such as ending military exercises with Ukraine and Georgia, refraining from sending warships into the Black Sea, and reducing the U.S. troop count in Europe.
In his first term, Trump’s overtures to Russia have frequently been hindered by opposition in Congress and, in some cases, among members of his own administration.
When Trump dangled before Putin the possibility of lifting sanctions imposed by Obama on Russia for actions including its takeover of Crimea and alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, Congress quickly passed legislation to enshrine them into law, making it impossible for him to remove them unilaterally.
In a second term, Katz said, Trump might push harder against such resistance “because the perception will be that he has been vindicated.”
In any case, according to analysts, how successful Trump might be in achieving his foreign policy goals in a second term would depend in part on the outcome of congressional elections and who fills key roles in his cabinet.
Trump would face a “bruising fight” to get close associates approved for senior positions, especially in the national security sphere, if the Democrats were to control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and formerly the top Russia and Europe adviser on Trump’s National Security Council, told a conference on October 5.
And Congress could weigh in with additional sanctions against Russia following a Trump victory, Courtney said.
Lawmakers would have plenty of potential grounds for doing so, he said, pointing to the recent Justice Department indictment of Russian military intelligence officers over an alleged global hacking campaign, the poisoning of Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny, and FBI reports that Russia was “very active” in efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. elections.
Rights And Freedoms
Democrats charge that Trump has been hesitant to criticize Putin or seek to punish the Kremlin over what other U.S. officials have called Russia’s “malign activities” abroad and its alleged violations of human rights, both within and beyond its borders.
That is one area in which Trump’s policies in a second term and Biden’s if elected would likely differ substantially, according to analysts who point to events of recent weeks and months as evidence.
Trump remained silent as European leaders condemned Moscow over the poisoning of Navalny with what German authorities say was a banned military-grade nerve agent in what the vocal opponent of Putin asserts was an attack by the Russian state.
Trump has also not spoken out publicly about the crackdown on peaceful protesters in Belarus, where Alyaksandr Lukashenka, an authoritarian ruler who is seeking to hold on to power after 26 years and has done so up to now largely due to Russian support.
“Donald Trump continues to cozy up to Russia while Putin persecutes civil society and journalists,” Biden tweeted on August 21, the day after Navalny fell ill, calling what happened to the Kremlin foe “unacceptable.”
“Unlike Trump, I’ll defend our democratic values and stand up to autocrats like Putin,” he said.
Biden also said that Russia “must be told not to interfere” in Belarus, where Russia has so far backed Lukashenka’s actions and analysts say Moscow is angling to increase its influence whether he remains in power or not.
As vice president, Biden was Obama’s point man on Ukraine, where he advocated reforms and offered words of support for Kyiv amid the war against Russia-backed separatists. Trump’s ties with Ukraine have been clouded by his impeachment.
Who’s The Tough Guy?
Responding to critics who assert that some of his words and actions have made it seem like he is beholden to Putin, Trump has claimed that he has been tougher on Russia than Obama and Biden ever were in eight years at the helm.
Trump supporters point out that he has authorized the shipment of lethal weapons to Ukraine, something Obama did not do; moved more U.S. troops into Poland; and imposed sanctions in an effort to block completion of a $10 billion, Kremlin-backed natural-gas pipeline to Germany, as well as on the trading arm of Russian state oil giant Rosneft.
Democrats in Congress and other critics charge that Trump has refrained from using the full powers of the sweeping 2017 sanctions law known as CAATSA to punish Russia, and that his sometimes accommodating rhetoric has undercut U.S. efforts to change the Kremlin’s conduct.
“Biden would be more credible in using the threat of CAATSA to try to cajole the Russians into a settlement on some issues and have a more unified message,” said Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and a former U.S. Treasury Department official.
Analysts said that the Trump administration’s messaging about foreign policy to allies and Russia has often been incoherent, with the president saying one thing — such as calling for Russia’s return to the G8 — and senior officials sometimes suggesting the opposite.
According to Hill, who was in her White House position from April 2017 to July 2019, that has resulted in Kremlin officials questioning whether their meetings with senior members of the Trump administration were authoritative.
A Biden administration, analysts say, would deliver a more consistent policy to the Kremlin, potentially enabling the United States and Russia to get more done even if his stance or rhetoric is tougher than Trump’s.
Clearer messaging could mean that “on certain issues, U.S. policy might be tougher than it has been under Trump,” said Brian Taylor, a political-science professor at Syracuse University who focuses on Russia. “But it also might mean that in certain areas, it’s easier to see possible so-called ‘win-win’ solutions that just aren’t on the table now because of how dysfunctional the process has become.”
Furthermore, he argued, having a new president in office could enable a more dispassionate discussion of Russia policy in Washington — where it has been a toxic topic throughout Trump’s term, ever since the U.S. intelligence community announced its finding that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election and favored Trump.
The ensuing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who found that Russia interfered in the election but did not find evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign with Moscow, poisoned the ground for U.S.-Russian negotiations on a host of issues.
“If the Democrats win this time, then in some sense, that’s in the past,” Taylor said.
- Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.