Skip to main content

On the Horizon 2021 | Russia and Ukraine

Here are three things to watch in Russia and Ukraine in 2021.

Russia and the Biden Administration

President-elect Biden has a nearly half-century long track record on U.S. foreign policy, including on Russia and Ukraine, and his past statements underscore an approach that will have broad  bipartisan support. He will seek strategic stability with Russia, provide significant aid to Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States and other neighbors in ongoing conflicts with Russia, and voice rhetorical support (at least) for the beleaguered Russian opposition. Biden is duly cautious about provoking direct conflict with Moscow that could spur unintended escalation. An evenly-divided Senate will aim to stymie the White House’s policy agenda wherever possible, but January may bring reduced Congressional pressure—triggered by largely bipartisan mistrust of President Trump on Russia—to impose new sanctions. Yet legislators will not rescind existing sanctions legislation. The State and Treasury Departments will update and maintain sanctions designations, taking relatively narrow and targeted new actions. The result will be continuing pressure on Moscow.

Biden’s Approach to FSU States

President-elect Biden likely will take a strong personal interest in guiding U.S. policy on Ukraine. He can afford to take chances on summit diplomacy in the Russia-Ukraine conflict if the White House maintains a hard line on security aid to Ukraine and beefs up NATO forward presence in Eastern Europe. Reform in Ukraine may be constrained by that nation’s apparent constitutional crisis, and President Zelenskiy’s declining polls. Biden has staked out a careful position on Belarus, deeming authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenka illegitimate, but calling for international action on sanctions against him and his regime. And the recent Armenia and Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabakh has elicited more concern over Russian and Turkish involvement than the maximalist goals of the direct parties to the conflict. This signals a broader, geopolitical view.

Strategic Alignment Between Russia and China

On the campaign trail, Biden and his team spoke of confronting both Moscow and Beijing “from a position of strength.” This means greater outreach to U.S. allies, many of which are engaged in intense confrontations of their own with Russia and China. But it also will mean abandoning President Trump’s willingness to engage in personal diplomacy with authoritarian leaders, from Putin and Xi to Kim and Erdogan, in favor of renewing an emphasis on democracy promotion. These developments will deepen already serious U.S.-China tensions over trade, security and global governance that have worsened through the Obama and Trump administrations. Vladimir Putin even has begun to speak about the possibility of a full-blown military alliance with China, which would essentially reverse the landmark Nixon/ Kissinger opening to Beijing in the 1970s. The Biden administration must tread carefully, or contribute to the rollback of that historic U.S. achievement.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more