Throughout the Trump administration, the U.S. relationship with Russia was like Jekyll and Hyde. During office hours, the government, made up of hawks like John Bolton and regional experts like Fiona Hill, imposed sanctions and released tough statements on Russia. Hours later, those measures were often swiftly undercut by the friendly tone of the freewheeling President Donald Trump.
Now, with the arrival of a new administration, it looks like the U.S. government will have a single relationship with Russia, rather than two conflicting ones, but that doesn’t mean it will be any easier to manage.
In President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first call as counterparts on Tuesday, there were signs of the distance between their outlooks. The readouts from the White House and the Kremlin differed significantly, with Moscow’s account of the call omitting any mention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and other hot-button issues, such as the alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. tech firm SolarWinds.
The two accounts of the calls show what is in store for an increasingly rocky period of U.S.-Russia relations.
The most immediate test of the new era of Washington-Moscow relations may be tied to the fate of Navalny, the poisoned dissident who was arrested upon his return to Russia last week and faces the possibility of significant prison time.
If Navalny’s poisoning last August aimed to silence him, it failed spectacularly. He is already Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, and the attempted assassination drew global attention to his cause. His decision to return to Russia in January, knowing that he would probably be detained, only gained him respect and admiration.
Like many foreign dissidents, there is a dissonance between how Navalny is viewed at home and how he is seen abroad. (Western liberals might well blanch at his sometimes nationalistic views.) However, his blend of activism, investigative journalism and sarcastic black humor effectively pokes holes in the corrupt logic of Putin’s Russia.
The Kremlin didn’t mention Navalny in its account of the Biden call. No surprise: Putin avoids naming him and even referred to him obliquely as “the patient” after his poisoning. But Russia’s state-approved polling firms have suggested that Navalny’s domestic support is growing, if still small. The size and scale of protests last weekend, in which more than 3,300 people were arrested in nearly 70 cities and towns throughout Russia, prove Navalny is able to garner more than just headlines.
For Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it will be a challenge to support Navalny without undermining him. But already, Biden has done more than his predecessor. Much like Putin, Trump rarely mentioned Navalny during his time in office. When pressed on the issue a week after Navalny’s poisoning, he said only that the United States would be “looking into it.”
Four years ago, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election cast a pall over relations between Moscow and Washington. Those issues remain unresolved, and there are now even more allegations of Russian malfeasance.
The White House account of the call mentioned the alleged Russian hack of the U.S. firm SolarWinds, which resulted in an enormous breach of at least eight federal agencies, as well as allegations that Russia offered Taliban-linked militants rewards for deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Russia has denied these acts, just as it denied any interference in the 2016 election. But Biden looks set to take a firm hand and has already called on the director of national intelligence to investigate the SolarWinds hack. Trump had publicly dismissed the issue, even suggesting that China could have been involved.
There also remains from the Trump era the case of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for alleged espionage last year. Though senior Trump officials boasted about U.S. citizens released in other parts of the world, they were curiously silent on Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 under murky circumstances.
Whelan’s relatives have expressed hope that the new administration will bring a fresh approach. “We’ve seen ‘speak softly’ now it’s time for the ‘big stick,” Elizabeth Whelan, Paul’s sister, tweeted on Tuesday.
A rare bright spot may be international cooperation. The United States and Russia have pledged to extend the New START accord, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty they share. Russian lawmakers on Wednesday approved an extension to the agreement, which was due to expire Feb. 5.
The continuation of the treaty, which limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, was greeted warmly by anti-proliferation activists. “It took President Biden just two weeks to make more progress on disarmament than Trump did in four years,” said Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
But it may be harder to find progress on other international agreements. In its readout of Tuesday’s call, the Kremlin pointed out that the Trump administration had unilaterally pulled out of the Treaty on Open Skies, an agreement that allows surveillance flights over foreign nations, as well as the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and other nations.
Returning to either may take some work: Putin pledged to take Russia out of Open Skies two weeks ago, while Biden’s plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal are complicated by increasing tensions with Tehran.
The White House and the Kremlin also mentioned the lingering conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists still hold land amid a fragile cease-fire, though they phrased it in starkly different terms: The U.S. statement mentioned “Ukrainian sovereignty” and hinted at Russian aggression, while the Russian statement called it the “domestic Ukrainian conflict.” Another regional issue – Russia’s support for the Belarusian state after pro-democracy protests – was not mentioned by either.
Amid a global pandemic, it is tempting to imagine that some countries will put aside their differences to come together for the greater good. However, while speaking remotely at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, Putin offered platitudes but hinted at further resistance to the United States.
“The era marked by attempts to create a centralized unipolar global order is over now,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to the United States – and perhaps its new leader, too.