Moscow Is In No Hurry to Congratulate Joe Biden
By Ksenia Svetlova | November 20, 2020
Among the many warm wishes and congratulations directed at President Elect Joe Biden, it was hard not to notice whose was missing: Russian leader, Vladimir Putin's. Moscow, much like Beijing, chose to wait with their felicitations until a later date – and this deafening silence bears no good news. The Russian media and local commentators, however, did not ignore Biden's win, although most correspondents preferred to focus on mocking the president elect's mental capabilities.
Russian-U.S. relations have been bumpy during President Donald Trump's four years in office too, for he did not make the Russians' dreams come true by lifting the heavy economic sanctions imposed by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, if it were up to the Kremlin, Trump would undoubtedly have remained at the White House. The outgoing president never branded Russia as an enemy of the U.S. He called President Putin "a friend", and met with him against the top echelon of the State Department and his close advisors' better judgment. More importantly, Trump's policy weakened the U.S. significantly in the international arena. The President attacked the UN, NATO, and his allies in both Europe and South-East Asia, thereby contributing to the isolation of his country by international institutions. Domestic tensions in American society peaked, and the U.S. seemed like a lost ship that has no captain.
During that time, Russia managed to substantially increase its clout in many areas, particularly the Middle East. It became the number one weapon exporter in Africa, and gained a significant foothold on the Mediterranean coastline.
Moscow is well aware that Joe Biden will differ greatly as a president from Donald Trump. The former is an "old school" American politician and statesman. He believes Russia's growing impact is necessarily at the expense of American interests and clout. In the recent past, he explicitly marked Russia as America's number one enemy. many presidents before him thought and acted the same way. They were aware of Moscow's attempts to undermine U.S. status and stability, inter alia by intervening in its elections. Joe Biden, who was welcomed heartily by Western leaders – the French president, German chancellor, and British prime minister – is determined to start rebuilding his relations with Washington's European allies, as well as its status in the international institutions as soon as he is inaugurated. Its increasing clout, the strengthening of the NATO alliance, and steady relations between its members are a very strong trigger for the Russians, who have always sought to curb the alliance's presence in what they call "blizhneye zarubezhye" – former Soviet republics that have since become sovereign states. The latter's attempts to get closer to the west, and promote pro-western policies, were interpreted by Moscow as an attempt to jeopardize Russian interests, which sometimes required military intervention, as in Georgia in 2009, and the Ukraine in 2014. The cancellation policy adopted by President Trump was very convenient for the Russian rulers.
Biden's "internationalism", however, is making the Kremlin anxious. Moscow believes that, not only is the President Elect disinclined to lift the current sanctions that are leaving the Russian economy gasping for air, he will, in fact, expand and enhance them. Nor will he turn a blind eye toward their human rights violations as his predecessor has done. The notion that the U.S. will once again start to reinforce its norms in this sensitive area is a concern shared not only by Russia, but China and some Middle Eastern rulers too. But will this common anxiety in anticipation of the return of the "global policeman" bring all of these players closer together, strengthening the alliances and ties between them despite their internal rivalry? Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are all very worried about America renewing its criticism of their increasing human rights violations.
Be that as it may, global issues are not expected to be top priorities for the new president, but domestic ones – the spreading pandemic, economic crisis, loss of jobs, and divided American society. He may not call his policy "America First" like President Trump did, but reality itself will dictate the rules in the near future. Moreover, Biden had criticized the war in Iraq vehemently, and is opposed to sending U.S. troops to countries engaged in a violent conflict (of which there are too many), so it is hard to believe that he would increase U.S. military presence in Syria or Iraq. Instead, he would probably prefer to take diplomatic steps, exert political pressure, or threaten to impose sanctions. The U.S. is also not expected to clash with Russia in Libya – a location of strategic and economic importance to Moscow – because this African country is not high on the regional American agenda.
Either way, Russia feels a cool breeze blowing from Washington in its direction, and is already preparing for the battle that will surely ensue in the media, international institutions, and on the ground. Israel should be very careful, for it must maintain its strategic relations with Moscow to ensure its freedom of action in the north, while enhancing and strengthening its ties with Biden's administration, as the U.S. is its greatest strategic partner. To date, Israel was not forced to side with either superpower in the eternal conflict between Russia and the U.S., however, if tensions between them should increase in the near future, Israel may have to recalculate its route.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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