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US-Russia Relations under the Biden Administration | An Expert Analysis

On January 20th, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next President of the United States and with him, a new administration and foreign policy. How might US-Russia relations shift under the incoming Biden administration? The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts to weigh in on this developing story and consider the following questions:

  1. How will the incoming Biden administration approach US Russia policy? Are there specific areas where we can expect more or less attention, compared to the previous administration?
  2. How might US sanctions against Russia change in the Biden administration? Do you expect Congress to play a similar role in Russia sanctions policy as it did during the Trump administration?
  3. How is the Biden administration likely to address Moscow and Beijing’s growing strategic alignment?
  4. What do you foresee being the biggest points of tension between the US and Russia over the next four years? Conversely, what if any opportunities are likely to bring the two countries together to advance common interests?

Read contributions from Michael Kimmage, Pavel Koshkin, Victoria Zhuravleva, and Peter Zwack below.

Explore the Analysis from Our Experts

  • "The Biden administration will begin with low expectations of what, if anything, can be accomplished with Russia. President Biden and his senior staff are not new to the Russia brief, and their experiences in the final term of the Obama administration left them with a sense of Russia as an unscrupulous actor in Europe and the Middle East, culminating in Russia’s election meddling of 2016, meddling intended to damage the fortunes of the Democratic Party. The Biden administration’s Russia policy will waver between targeted areas of cooperation and managed conflict. It will waver strategically between more hands-off efforts to contain Russia and actions—economic sanctions especially—that are meant to reduce Russia’s military and diplomatic efficacy. Where the Biden administration will differ dramatically from the Trump administration is not in its Russia policy per se. It will be in its linkage of Russia as a problem and the transatlantic relationship as the solution. NATO will be elevated as a tool for demarcating and delimiting Russian influence. This renewed transatlantic relationship will be justified in terms of values, not just of shared commercial and national security interests. For this reason, the 'in-between' countries, from Belarus through Ukraine to the South Caucasus, are likely to be more contested than they were under Trump. Whether these countries are tending toward democracy or not will be the benchmark of success in Washington and an indicator for Moscow of how the regional balance of power is being configured."

    -Michael Kimmage, Professor of History and Department Chair, Catholic University of America

    "Biden is likely to return to the approaches of the Obama administration toward Russia. Even though the president-elect is tougher and more intransigent in his policy toward Moscow than his predecessor, Donald Trump, that doesn’t mean that Biden won’t try to improve US-Russia relations, as it was the case during the Obama-era reset.

    "However, it will be extremely difficult, because today Russia is seen as a hostile nation and a troublemaker rather than as a friend or a problem-solver. Specifically, Washington will still view Russia as one of the key, though irresponsible, stakeholders in the international arena, including in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This means that the United States will try to hold Russia accountable for its foreign and domestic policy.

    In contrast to Trump, the Biden administration will not only pay attention to the Kremlin’s policy in the post-Soviet space but will also put a spotlight on human rights in Russia, given that country’s alleged attempts to poison opposition activist Alexey Navalny. After all, Democrats are known for their focus on human rights. 

    "Yet there will still be room for healthy pragmatism in US-Russia relations under Biden. Particularly, the incoming president will revive talks on nuclear nonproliferation with Russia that stalled under Trump. One cannot rule out that Biden will prolong the START treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021. It remains to be seen whether he succeeds or not, yet the problem of nuclear crisis will return to the US-Russia agenda. After all, strategic cooperation and a nuclear weapons–free world were among the key priorities for Obama, and Biden will stick to them as well. Moreover, Biden might seek to return to the Iranian nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from in May 2018. And Russia might be involved in this process as one of its key stakeholders.

    "Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, will play a much greater role in maintaining working US-Russia relations than the presidents of the two countries, just as was the case during the Obama administration thanks to Lavrov and John Kerry, who tried to prevent US-Russia relations from reaching new lows amid the events in Ukraine in 2014–2016. That means that Russia and the United States might speak the language of diplomacy rather than the language of trolling, which was common for the United States and Russia during Trump’s presidency. And finally, Russia knows what to expect from Biden; that’s why Moscow-Washington relations will develop in a more predictable way. There won’t be high expectations and high requirements of each other, which is good."

    -Pavel Koshkin, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

    "From my point of view, it will be an ideologically colored, more value-based policy toward Russia in comparison with the Trump administration’s policy. Biden will extend the human rights and democracy front line of the US-Russia relationship, but despite tough rhetoric, he will not back Russia into a corner. He understands that such a policy would feed Putin’s nationalism and anti-Americanism. The new administration is likely to be more active in consolidating NATO’s Russia policy and in coordinating European countries’ position in the sanctions regime, although Biden might let Germany act on its own authority in the question of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

    "Biden will support the New START treaty, although the strategic stability negotiations with Russia will be conducted with an iron fist. He will look for ways to revive the nuclear deal with Iran and to return to the Paris climate agreement—both steps useful for creating a pragmatic Russian-American agenda while maintaining and promoting sanctions.

    "At the same time, Biden’s administration will be the first in the post–Cold War period that did not have unrealistic expectations concerning Russia. And in some sense that is a positive sign. Besides, Biden views not Russia but China as a 'serious competitor' and as a main threat to US national interests.

    "In general, however, the foreign policy of both countries will depend on the domestic political agenda, and in that respect, there is no room for optimism."

    -Victoria Zhuravleva, Professor of American History and International Relations and Chair of the American Studies Department, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow

    "There will be a fleeting opportunity to improve US-Russia relations. The seasoned professionals who will constitute President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy team will have no appetite for a reset, but certainly will reassess US-Russia relations. The veteran Russian foreign policy team may also be looking for ways to reduce tensions; whether they (Putin-Lavrov) really desire such will be determined by associated Russian behaviors. Both teams, US and Russian, know each other well from Obama administration days, so realpolitik will rule the day.

    "Early on, Presidents Biden and Putin should meet, after an initial Biden visit with NATO. But first the strategic nuclear New START treaty should be immediately extended for up to five years. Expiring on February 5, just two weeks after Biden’s inauguration, this treaty, once extended, could provide a positive baseline to begin working on the numerous contentious issues separating the White House and the Kremlin. These include a rising China and new weapons technologies, including long-range precision conventional systems, hypersonics, cyberweapons, and AI. Furthermore, a return to multinational forums such as the Paris Accords, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal), and the World Health Organization would put US and Russian diplomats, bureaucrats, and scientists back in more routine contact and coordination on key issues, including climate change-Arctic, global health, space, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

    "On the security front, with pragmatic 'eyes wide open,' efforts should be made to redevelop senior leader confidence-building and crisis-mitigation links between US Global Combatant Commands and Russian regional Military Districts extending along Russia’s vast eleven-time-zone periphery.

    "Unambiguous American defensive ties to allies and partners would be nonnegotiable, with a reinforced understanding with Moscow that no country wants confrontation or war with Russia."

    -Brig. Gen. (ret.) Peter Zwack, Global Fellow, Wilson Center

  • "Under a Biden administration, Congress will not play the role in Russia policy that it played under Trump. Republicans in Congress rarely opposed President Trump. Yet they did so on Russia, in part because Trump was perceived as too friendly to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and in part because Trump was for most of his presidency under investigation for colluding with Russia to tamper with the 2016 election. On Russia as on very few other questions, congressional Republicans and Democrats saw eye to eye. In practical policy terms they could agree to enact sanctions on Russia, which they did often. Congressional Republicans and Democrats will continue to see eye to eye under Biden, though the political logic of sanctioning Russia will be different. It will not be about constraining the White House’s options. It will revolve around the strategic impetus the Biden White House gives to its Russia policy: whether sanctions are approached as a deterrent vis-à-vis Russia’s military position in Europe, in the South Caucasus, and in the Middle East; whether sanctions are aimed at curtailing corruption within Russia and corruption as a Russian tool of influence outside Russia, or whether sanctions will be aligned with a long-term goal of democracy promotion in and around Russia (e.g., in Belarus). All of the above is also possible, in which case the United States would be prone to levying extensive new sanctions on Russia."

    -Michael Kimmage, Professor of History and Department Chair, Catholic University of America

    "Given that US secretary of state Antony Blinken was a strong advocate of sanctions on Russia for its policy in Ukraine in 2014, the United States might toughen its sanctions. Even though Trump signed the law imposing sanctions on Russia and was tough enough too, the Democrats could be much tougher, not least because Russia doesn’t respect their expectations of how Russia should behave globally.

    Another reason why sanctions might be tougher is the Navalny poisoning. With the new presidential administration’s closer possible shift to human rights in bilateral relations, new sanctions might be imposed on Russia. Moreover, given that Russia is still facing accusations of meddling in US domestic affairs in 2016, the so-called “sanctions bill from hell” might be finally adopted and signed by the president. All this might become another thorny issue in US-Russia relations.

    Regarding the role of Congress in the Russia sanctions policy, it is going to be diminishing, at least because the Democratic-led House of Representatives shares the view of the Biden administration. A lot depends on the January 5 runoff elections to the Senate in Georgia, which will determine the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans within this chamber. If the latter win, the role of Congress might be bigger in the Russia sanctions policy than if Democrats win."

    -Pavel Koshkin, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

  • "Sino-Russian relations could be a big problem for the Biden administration. President Trump established a new consensus in Washington, D.C., which is that China stands no foreseeable chance of being integrated into an international order of American vintage and that, to this degree, China will need to be confronted by the United States diplomatically, militarily, and in the domain of economics and technology—confronted in Asia and confronted globally. As with Russia and Europe, the Biden administration will approach the China challenge as one that requires alliance building and alliance maintenance. Yet no amount of alliance building by the United States can offset the fact that China and Russia have drawn closer together since 2014. The Biden administration will not use this fact to argue, as President Trump occasionally did, that the United States should repair its relations with Russia for the sake of countering China: trust in Putin’s Russia is too minimal, and this 'Kissingerian' gambit would be viewed as too zero-sum by Biden and the national security team. Hence the Biden administration is likely to be an observer to Sino-Russian relations, lacking in leverage to do much to direct them one way or another and hopeful that the not insignificant internal contradictions of the relationship between Beijing and Moscow will hold back its success or, coupled with internal domestic problems, be a signifier of geopolitical decline rather than of ascendant global sway."

    -Michael Kimmage, Professor of History and Department Chair, Catholic University of America

    "Moscow’s and Beijing’s strategic alignment might be a nightmare for hawkish Republicans with a Cold War mentality, but not for Democrats and the Biden administration. Probably Biden will be more pragmatic and will try to restore working ties with China, given their economic codependence.

    "I don’t think that the new president will be seriously concerned with the Russian-Chinese alignment, at least because he might understand that economically, Washington and Beijing are more codependent than Moscow and Beijing. This means that China won’t sacrifice its economic ties with the United States for the sake of Russia, no matter how close to Russia it might look like at first glance.

    "In fact, many Russians, including politicians, don’t trust China, and this distrust is reciprocated. In other words, Moscow’s and Beijing’s growing strategic alignment is just political rhetoric that is used by Chinese and Russian politicians for their narrow, short-term goals. But again, behind this supposed alignment is a lack of trust. The Biden team might be mindful of this."

    -Pavel Koshkin, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

    "An attempt to destroy Russia’s near-alliance with China would be among the foreign policy priorities of a Biden administration. For Biden, the challenge is to punish Putin while also preserving the ability to work with him on arms control and China. Biden has characterized Trump’s China policy as a failure, and we can expect a more considered policy toward China (including a decrease in the intensity of the trade war), especially insofar as his foreign policy team will consist of professionals and supporters of sensible diplomacy. 

    "Biden’s desire to articulate concerns about China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang and to be more effective than Trump in promoting democracy in China would strengthen a common anti-American agenda of Moscow and Beijing, although Putin’s Russia, while sharing the Chinese concept of new globalism without US hegemony, and despite its anti-Americanism, which is of a pragmatic nature, is not ready to be a junior partner to China in the construction of a Sino-centric world order. Russia’s policy toward China correlates with the collapse of the US-Russia and EU-Russia relationship after the annexation of Crimea. Under sanctions from the West, China is becoming a key partner of Russia, and Biden’s administration cannot ignore the relationship between Beijing and Moscow. At the same time, that seems to underscore the lack of a strategic framework for managing US-China relations in Washington."

    -Victoria Zhuravleva, Professor of American History and International Relations and Chair of the American Studies Department, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow

    "Experienced China and Russia hands will constitute part of the Biden foreign policy team. Their policy positions, while well coordinated, will likely and necessarily be separate regarding Beijing and Moscow. Pronouncements about China and Russia should not be lumped together in policy declarations or actions because while transactional partners, China and Russia are not each other’s allies. To do so may create fait accompli thinking and resultant actions that push them closer together. While China and Russia are mostly aligned in how they view Washington and our allies—especially in their perceptions of a Western regime-change threat—they are utterly different nations and peoples with both interwoven and contradictory security concerns.

    "Their increased military training together in Russia’s recent Eastern (2019) and Central (2020) exercises is troubling, enhanced by their naval link-ups and their flying strategic bombers together off Japan and South Korea. The key is to watch whether these engagements are as much diplomatic posturing as real interoperability training.

    "There should be no overt efforts to drive wedges between these two diametrically dissimilar nations that share a vast, recently contested border the size of the US-Canadian boundary. The Chinese resource-driven Belt and Road and Polar Silk Road initiatives along Russia’s southern and northern periphery will also present balancing challenges for Moscow. Long-term, generational wedges are inexorably in place between these traditionally distrustful behemoths, whether in their geography, history, demographics, culture, ethnicity, resource imbalances, or philosophies.

    "Addressing China and Russia, either individually or in tandem, would always be most effectively carried out in conjunction with Washington’s most important international asset, its global network of real allies and partners.

    That said, Washington and its allies must be prepared for a worst-case scenario involving unlikely but possible conflict simultaneously with China and Russia."

    -Brig. Gen. (ret.) Peter Zwack, Global Fellow, Wilson Center

  • "Tensions will come in two forms over the next four years. One is the potential for accident, which is implicit in a conflictual relationship, to frequent misreadings of one another’s intentions and to militaries that rub against each other throughout Europe and increasingly in the Middle East as well. In addition to long-standing grievances on both sides, tension will also take a more ideological form in the Biden era. The United States will once again emphasize the centrality of democracy to its foreign policy. This will matter in Belarus, in Ukraine, in Georgia, and elsewhere. What Russia will emphasize in return is not exactly clear: populism and cultural traditionalism, as Moscow touts these political forces, do not amount to a clear ideology. But American democracy promotion can easily intersect with a kind of officially sponsored nationalism in Russia, which might be an especially important factor in the East Slavic countries of Belarus and Ukraine, should the United States and Russia find themselves on the opposite sides of crises in these countries. As for opportunities, both countries have the opportunity to create more diplomatic contact and stability. If this succeeds, both could employ this contact and stability to work on arms control, pandemic management, climate change, and other issues where the geopolitical and ideological differences between the United States and Russia are less acute. Over time, a track record of diplomatic accomplishment on more technical issues could allow Moscow and Washington to address the structural questions that truly divide them, some of which are located in the Middle East but the heart and soul of which are in Ukraine and in the surrounding areas where Russia is not in control and NATO is not in place."

    -Michael Kimmage, Professor of History and Department Chair, Catholic University of America

    "There will be both challenges and opportunities for US-Russia relations under Biden. Among the biggest points of tension are the ongoing sanctions on Russia, human rights in Russia, Europe’s energy security (particularly with the regard to the role of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 project), Ukraine, Syria, and attempts to hold Russia accountable for its alleged interference in the US 2016 elections and for spreading fake news. Among the opportunities are the attempts to resume bilateral talks on nonproliferation, the possible prolongation of the START III treaty, possible but limited cooperation on the International Space Station, and increasing educational, cultural, and professional exchanges."

    -Pavel Koshkin, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

    "Again, immediately extending the New START treaty for five years and recommitting to a modified Open Skies Treaty with its thirty-four signatories would be a good start. Rejoining abandoned international forums is another.

    "Increased activity and traffic in the Arctic is a likely point of contention. Russia’s melting Northern Sea Route—adjacent to its sensitive nuclear submarine bastions—provides both opportunity and vulnerability for Moscow as access to its resources, both real and claimed, becomes more open. This is a potential flashpoint.

    "A major risk, one that will grow without enhanced military-to-military conduits, is the prospect of a US-Russian military accident or incident that cannot be immediately mitigated by linked-in regional commanders. This could happen anywhere globally, including the Far East, Middle East, the Baltics, the Black Sea, the Arctic, and even off Venezuela.

    "A huge credibility chasm widens within the difficult-to-attribute cyberattacks and a 'gray zone' of competition and conflict. Continued Russian attempts to erode US governance and foment dissent, as well as stoking with proxies and contractors the baser tendencies of autocrats and 'illiberal democrats' worldwide, only widens this gulf.

    "Other friction points are how we with our allies address the legitimate aspirations of states such as Ukraine, Georgia, and roiling Belarus. Most important, we must maintain a frank dialogue with Russia and be consistent and predictable in our diplomacy and actions.

    "Addressing, if not resolving, the sensitive sanctions issue is essential. The new administration will likely stay in lockstep with the Europeans regarding Ukraine- and Crimea-linked sanctions, and sanctions must be upheld for egregious actions such as the Navalny and Skripal poisonings. That said, there need to be off-ramps for specific sanctions if Russian behaviors and relations measurably improve."

    -Brig. Gen. (ret.) Peter Zwack, Global Fellow, Wilson Center

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on 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 South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more