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America’s Two “Normalcies” and Moscow’s Choice

Maxim Trudolyubov

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Normalcy was on everyone’s lips in the run-up to the 2020 US election. To an outsider, it seemed that domestically, normalcy was mostly associated with Joe Biden. Internationally, the picture has been more complex.

The “normalcy” the United States’ partners seem to be expecting from a Biden presidency is of a very particular kind. In Canada and Germany, in France and Lithuania they hope to see a centrist, worldly politician who will reestablish the United States as an ally of Western powers and a reliable underwriter of their security.

But this is not the only normalcy there is. In 1920, while President Woodrow Wilson was preoccupied with establishing the League of Nations, his political opponents at home were pointing out that the United States was reeling from years of war in Europe and Asia and a devastating pandemic, the Spanish flu.

Republican Warren Harding, who in 1920 was running for the US presidency against Democrat James Cox, promised his country a break from interventionism in the world conflicts of the day. “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not revolution, but restoration; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality,” Harding said in one of his speeches. “A return to normalcy” and “America First!” were his slogans.

It was then that the word normalcy entered the language of campaigning and has remained as a recurring theme in politics ever since. The word has always retained the flair of nostalgia for the good old days, but the meaning of the “normalcy” in question would change from campaign to campaign.

Joe Biden’s must be a different sort of normalcy from the one peddled by Donald Trump, who ran on the slogan “America First!” and promised his followers a “triumphant nationality.”

If Moscow had any expectations about the outcome of the US election, they would likely have been associated with this latter type of normalcy. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is among a select group of world leaders, one that includes China’s Xi Jinping, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who have been conspicuously silent after the Biden win was announced last Saturday.

“We think it appropriate to wait for the official vote count,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier this week. In 2016, Putin was among the first leaders to extend his congratulations to the winner immediately after the election was called for Donald Trump. On Monday, when reminded about this, Peskov cited “certain legal procedures announced by the current president” as reasons for Moscow’s wait-and-see approach this time.

The Trump presidency has not been smooth sailing for Moscow. Despite Trump’s repeated praises for Putin and an apparent mutual chemistry between the two, Russia suffered from US sanctions, including crippling restrictions against a nearly finished gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, and saw the United States pull out of a bilateral nuclear treaty (the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF).

Under Trump, though not always at his insistence, the United States sanctioned a number of Russian oligarchs, their companies, Russian government officials, and state-owned Russian firms, including a weapons trading company. The reasons included the continued occupation of Crimea, Russian operators engaging in cyberattacks and election interference, and the Kremlin’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Russia also saw sanctions imposed on it for the use of a military-grade nerve agent against a former Russian spy who lived in the UK, for Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait, and for Moscow’s backing of separatist government elections in eastern Ukraine. 

And yet, when choosing between the two kinds of US leadership, Moscow seems to prefer the unilateralist and isolationist one exemplified by Trump to the liberal internationalist variety that Biden is widely seen to represent.

Moscow’s realist philosophy in international relations maintains that sovereign and powerful nation-states are the real actors in world affairs, not multilateral institutions with their declared principles. The latter are all mere tools in the hands of the powerful, the Kremlin thinking goes. International politics is transactional, not rules-based; the world is hierarchical, not egalitarian.

As the Trump administration began excoriating its Western allies for getting a free ride at the United States’ expense and as the US president pulled his country out of one international body after another, Moscow saw its worldview vindicated. Sanctions or no sanctions, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin prefers to have a like-minded leader in the White House.

It is not the United States’ tough stance toward Russia that antagonizes the Kremlin but internationalist behavior and support for hostile—in Moscow’s view—multilateral bodies like NATO and the EU. From Moscow’s perspective, the disintegration of those alliances is only a matter of time.

Even though a Biden leadership might bring more predictability to US foreign policy decision-making, the fact that Biden is expected to reaffirm US involvement in NATO does not make him a desirable partner in Moscow’s eyes. Over the years, Russia has consistently preferred dealing with the United States rather than with NATO, with Germany or France rather than with the EU.

And, of course, a US absence from conflict zones is, from Moscow’s perspective, the most welcome development. The recent Russia-brokered deal over the self-proclaimed, Armenian-populated republic of Nagorno Karabakh is a case in point. Located within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh has been the scene of recurring hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan for decades.

In late September, while everyone was watching the US election campaign reach its final stages, armed conflict erupted in the Karabakh conflict zone. Azerbaijan, backed and partly armed by Turkey, managed to make significant strides into Armenian-held territories. Then suddenly, in a televised address earlier this week, Putin announced a provisional settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s informal backer, silently stood by. The agreement may or may not hold, but what is important for both Moscow and Ankara is the United States’ absence. Even though Moscow had to usher a new stakeholder into its former “backyard,” the newly activist Turkey, the Kremlin is content it gets to manage an intrastate conflict without asking for US permission.

The Kremlin is thus supporting the kind of normalcy that is associated with the US isolationists and unilateralists and is loath to see a reinvigorated and interventionalist Washington come back. Right now it looks as though the Kremlin has nothing to worry about. Despite some signs of interest in US activism on the world stage, a Biden presidency, likely weakened by a Republican Senate and with a pandemic raging throughout the land, will be preoccupied with domestic issues for quite a while.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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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, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more