Russia policy after the US election

Regardless of the election result, Moscow will continue to see US policies as provisional – as a part of a temporary phase that one needs to wait out, to see what follows

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In early 2018, the European Council on Foreign Relations organised a discussion on Russia in Washington with the intention of comparing European and American views on the country, and finding out whether there was a transatlantic rift in our approaches. And, indeed, there was a rift – but it was not transatlantic. Instead, it ran between participants, European as well as American, who said that Russia must be pressured into accepting the rules-based world order and others who asked: “what rules-based order? Where do you see it?”

This rift will become more pronounced and acquire new importance should Joe Biden win the US presidential election.  His victory would almost certainly lead to renewed attempts to engage in transatlantic cooperation on several policy areas – including, or maybe even starting with, Russia. But, while a modicum of transatlantic unity and coordination would undoubtedly be good, the vision that guides it will matter a great deal.

Any new transatlantic Russia policy needs to be based on new realities. Attempts to recreate the past – to restore the international order of the 1990s, or even that of 2010 – would likely prove not just futile but counterproductive. In a chaotic world where a new order is not yet available, one needs to tread carefully and avoid overplaying one’s weakened hand – while still quietly working on the contours of the future. 

Europe has three competing theories on how to approach Russia – but all of them are rendered ineffective by the absence of a global order to give them structure.

The difficulty of coming up with a workable approach to Russia is reflected in Europe’s Russia policies. These days, Europe has three competing theories on how to approach Russia – but all of them are rendered ineffective by the absence of a global order to give them structure.

The first – let’s call it the ‘Lithuanian theory’ (to reflect the country’s recent activism on Belarus), though it is shared by many in northern and eastern Europe – consists of doubling down on the moral high ground. Rooted in the ‘end of history’ thinking of the 1990s, this policy seeks to influence Russia through criticism. It emphasises conditionality, treats dialogue as a reward, and resorts to symbolic acts – such as public displays of solidarity with pro-democracy forces and, of course, well-crafted speeches.

Competing with it is the French theory, embodied by President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts at outreach to Russia. This is rooted in classical realpolitik balancing – the notion that, to avoid being crushed between the United States and China, Europe needs to engage in some rapprochement with Russia, regardless of our normative differences and Moscow’s weak democratic credentials. In day-to-day politics, this view is expressed in efforts to make Russia come round to Europe’s – or sometimes just France’s – position.

And, lingering somewhat sadly on the sidelines, there is the German theory. Rooted in what academics would label liberal interdependence and confirmed by Germany’s experience of unification, this theory assumes that cooperation and dialogue eliminate differences and lead to normative convergence. Germany’s theory was dealt an early blow in 2011 – when Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency showed that normative convergence had not happened – and it largely crashed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Still, up until last summer, Germany has been looking for topics on which it could engage with Russia, in the hopes that keeping the lines of communication open would have some good effects and help make the world a safer place.

None of these approaches has worked recently. This is because, in a world in flux, Moscow sees them all as fleeting theoretical constructs that are not fit to invest in, let alone build on. Russian policymakers dismiss the Lithuanian theory as a fantasy based on past dreams: Moscow does not believe in the normative framework that forms its basis and, if it did, would fight against it.

The French theory goes nowhere because Moscow does understand who Macron speaks for: himself, France, or Europe. Moscow sees his ideas as unrealistic and domestically driven. And, in any case, Russia has no intention of limiting its freedom of action by prematurely siding with Europe, especially given that it does not know whether the European Union will become a policy actor to reckon with – or even if it is here to stay.

Russia’s scepticism about Europe may also explain the dismal fate of the German theory. Moscow has recently allowed its disputes with Berlin to pile up in ways that may cost it its best European friend – apparently just because it does not care to save or invest in a relationship with Germany and, by implication, Europe.

The US election result will affect the relative standing of these theories. A Biden win might embolden the Lithuanian theory, put the French theory on the defensive, and, depending on the circumstances, lend new energy to Germany’s attempts to create patches of common ground in the West’s otherwise normatively adversarial relationship with Russia (not to be confused with appeasement, which is a different thing entirely). Proponents of each theory would seek to strengthen it by coordinating and cooperating with a Biden administration, and they would want to help the new president succeed using their favoured approach (which would be different from Trump’s). But, even so, Moscow would likely remain reluctant to buy into any of this. 

This is not to say that it does not matter to Russia who wins the US election. Moscow does not have great expectations regarding either president, but the outcome will nonetheless have an impact on Russia’s view on the direction the world is heading in. A second Trump presidency would validate what, according to some Russian experts, has always been Putin’s world view: “instinctively, he is nationalist, unilateralist, and transactional”, said one Russian analyst in December 2018. “For him, this is how the world works, and he wants to be vindicated. He wants to be able to tell the West he has always been right.”

A Biden win would clash with this view. It would show the Kremlin that the normative ideas that have underpinned the Western policies are not dead; that they might make a comeback and, importantly, adapt to new realities. But adaptation cannot be taken for granted, and would inevitably take time. So, in either case, Moscow will continue to see US policies as provisional – as a part of a temporary phase that one needs to wait out, to see what follows. Moscow would view Trump as a destroyer of the liberal system – and would welcome this – but not as an architect of a new system that it could engage with. And Moscow would inevitably suspect a Biden presidency of being just the last gasp of the former liberal consensus.

The more Biden urged a restoration of Obama-era policies – not to mention those of the Clinton era – the more Moscow would see his actions as the death throes of a dying order and, as such, something to resist or ignore. Conversely, the stronger Biden proved in acknowledging that the world had changed, and that Western policy needed to change too, the more seriously Moscow would take him as a figure who could shape the future.

The task is to find a way of shaping the world – including influencing Russia – in the circumstances where the Western ‘unipolar’ moment of the 1990s has passed, and even 500 years of relative Western hegemony might be drawing to a close. This takes humility, caution, and a clear head. Emotionally driven policies and rushed solutions do not fit. In a seminal study exploring the lessons that the Soviet collapse might offer to the European Union, Ivan Krastev argued that, “in times of threats of disintegration, political actors should bet on flexibility and constrain their natural urge for rigidity and solutions intended to last (which, if and when they fail, can accelerate the momentum to disintegration).” This applies to the disintegration of the international order as well. Attempts to forcefully recreate yesterday’s order will almost certainly lead to its final discreditation. Efforts to build something new, forcefully and prematurely, will be stillborn. A fruitful policy requires a humble mindset and an understanding that, to shape the world order, the West needs to start at home, by making its own societies work; by remaking them. This will take time – but it has a chance of working.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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