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Andrei Gromyko congratulates Joe Biden

In 2011 Joe Biden, as the US vice president during his visit to Moscow, said to Vladimir Putin: “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin replied: “We understand one another”. This anecdote seems to be a prophecy of a rough co-existence without any signs of fondness. Clearly Putin and most of the current Russian political elite are very sceptical towards Biden.

February 3, 2021 - Kuba Benedyczak - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2021Magazine

Photo by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)

The Russian president was one of the last national leaders who congratulated Biden on his victory over Donald Trump. While Angela Merkel had sent her congratulatory message on November 9th, Putin sent his one month later. Even China’s Xi Jinping was ahead of him. It was no coincidence, but a very clear signal that Russia has been preparing itself for a much more intense confrontation with the US with the Biden presidency. And if truth be told, Russians have their own reason to wear thick protective armour for the next four years.

Joe Biden is not an “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” for the Russian authorities, but rather a good old fellow. From the moment he was elected, an old and symptomatic photo began to circulate on Russian social media and gained huge popularity. In January 1988, during consultations for the ratification of the Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF Treaty), then Senator Joe Biden is standing next to Andrei Gromyko, the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Gromyko, who passed away in 1989 and was a member of the communist party since 1931, was a legend in Soviet diplomacy. The photo immediately became a meme stamped with “The first person to congratulate Joe Biden on his electoral victory was Andrei Andreevich Gromyko”.

However, the history of the Biden-Russia romance is even longer. As senator, Biden visited Moscow for the first time in 1979, when the ill-starred SALT-2 treaty was signed. In other words, the current American president survived Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and he went through all the ups and downs of the Russian-American toxic love/hate relationship. Biden also met and spoke with Putin on many occasions. It would be ironic, indeed, if Biden also survived Putin, who might step down in 2024.

In Biden’s article on US foreign policy, published early last year in Foreign Affairs (“Why America Must Lead Again”), he defined the Putin regime as a “kleptocratic authoritarian system”. He also stressed that the US shall “stand with Russian civil society, which has bravely stood up time and again against” Putin’s kleptocracy. This tone immediately set off alarm bells in the Kremlin. During Biden’s vice presidency, especially between 2011 and 2012, Putin experienced huge social protests. The Obama administration welcomed Russia’s attempt at a colour revolution (the most hated phrase by the Kremlin), and then American ambassador Michael McFaul, sent to Moscow in January 2012, actively supported the protests and often met with opposition leaders. Putin obviously accused the US and McFaul of stirring up the protests and for spending millions of dollars to influence Russian elections.

The rhetoric from that article resembles that which has traditionally been used by the Americans – also by Trump and Mike Pompeo – towards other authoritarian regimes that have thrown down the gauntlet to American hegemon. In other words, it goes like this: “Chinese, Venezuelans, Iranians and Russians are wonderful people who deserve freedom, wealth and normal politicians, but unfortunately they are ruled by tyrants and gangsters, whose only concern is to maintain power”. No matter how true this is, to the Russian or Chinese authorities it is like a red cape to a bull, all the more considering that Biden promises to emphasise human rights, including LBGT+ rights, in his foreign policy.

In practice, Biden’s declarations will translate into greater pressure being put on Russian civil society organisations by state institutions. A good example is the week after the American election when the State Duma started preparing a bill imposing new restrictions on NGOs and created additional grounds for closing them down, especially those with “foreign financing”. One can only imagine what will happen if the Biden administration starts openly and actively supporting Russian NGOs. This is one of the reasons why the Kremlin does not believe that Biden and the officials he brings into the White House are cured of American exceptionalism, democratic messianism or a belief in their global leadership. Despite Biden’s criticism towards the American-led invasion of Iraq or intervention in Libya, during his vice presidency the US took military action in Libya, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, as well as supported the Arab Spring which later turned out to be more of a catastrophe.

In Foreign Affairs he accused Donald Trump of having “abdicated American leadership in mobilising collective action to meet new threats, especially those unique to this century … and that he has turned away from the democratic values that give strength to our nation and unify us as people”. In Biden’s view, democracy “strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world”.

Putin certainly sees trouble on the horizon. Yes, Biden declares that his administration is going to turn American foreign policy back to democratic values and global leadership via co-operation with democratic allies and international institutions, and not by force. Yes, Biden has gone through all the American failures in “exporting democracy”. Yes, Biden theoretically rejects military interventions, the same as Obama did. Yes, all of the above is true, but the Kremlin is hyper realistic and does not believe in a peaceful Biden agenda. For Moscow, his accusations levelled against Trump are veiled references to American interventions in Asia and Africa made in the name of democracy and human rights. Obviously, Russians would not oppose American interventions so strongly if they were consulted beforehand and received some of the spoils. But they are not, and taking into consideration the Kremlin’s obsession with colour revolutions, Biden’s declarations mean also support for the Belarusian and Russian opposition, never acceptable for the Russian authorities.

Biden’s rhetoric towards Russia has been assertive and confrontational from the beginning. Unlike Trump four years ago, Biden does not promise he will get along with “tough guy Putin”. Biden has declared facing Russian aggression (disinformation, cyberattacks, meddling in American election process) and increasing the costs Russia are to pay for violating international regulations. In this case, Moscow believes the new American president and most of his administration (for example his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin) are representatives of the American “deep state” which is against a reset with Russia or softening policy or sanctions towards Moscow, especially in terms of the annexation of Crimea or the war in Donbas.

Hence, in the Kremlin’s eyes, the most serious defect of Biden lays in the fact that he is not Donald Trump. No one within the Russian elite believes in a new Russian-American reset, or even a détente proposal. Yet Trump at least played the game that Moscow likes the most. In Trump’s vocabulary, it is called “America first”. For Putin, this means “defending of national interests”. Both of them mean extreme assertiveness, priority on business and a re-definition of international architecture to some extent. Trump, in fact, tried to change the position of the US within the international environment, as well as reshaping traditional US alliances, which he sees as very unfair. Therefore, he criticised and jeopardised NATO and relations with the EU, both being the foundation of the Euro-Atlantic community. Trump also criticised and jeopardised relations with America’s most important allies in Asia (i.e. South Korea and Japan). In a sense, Trump’s America had become revisionist power, next to China, Russia and Turkey. However, Biden will put an end to that and strengthen traditional US co-operation with democratic countries and institutions, especially when it comes to NATO and the EU.

Moscow found one small benefit in Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and policy towards America’s competitors (e.g. Iran) and allies (e.g. Germany). It gave Russia (and China) opportunities to develop their own soft power in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Russia was able to present itself as a reasonable and conciliatory partner, ready to redeem loans or grant credits, as well as sending high-qualified engineers, military advisers and medical staff for free. This gave Russia an opportunity to create an image completely different to Trump, who regularly shouted or tweeted that the United States should be paid for any support they provide. Biden, probably, will be able to play out such sensitive issues in a much more diplomatic manner.

Obviously, there are some areas where Biden will be willing, or forced, to co-operate with Russia. For example, Russia’s strong presence in the Middle East/North Africa region and Venezuela, the extension of the New START treaty, realising the Paris Agreement on climate change, and restoring the international nuclear deal with Iran. Yet, despite professional diplomatic contacts, relations between Moscow and Washington will not improve. In fact, it will likely be the opposite. They will become tenser and the world will not be any safer.

Is there any good news then? Yes, but nothing significant. However, as the director of the Moscow Carnegie centre, Dmitri Trenin, wrote: “It is good that the master of the Kremlin understands whom he will be facing in the White House”.

Kuba Benedyczak, doctor of political sciences, is an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. He focuses on the socio-political situation in Russia, contemporary Russian mass culture, and Russia’s relations with the countries of the Middle and Far East.

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