The Kremlin-controlled Russian media and top officialdom have greeted President Joe Biden and his administration taking power in the US with a massive, almost hysterical propaganda broadside. Kremlin news outlets have been castigating Biden as an old and senile figurehead president, who will hardly survive his four-year term and whose only purpose was to bring to power in Washington an extreme anti-Russian faction (Russian.rt.com, January 19). Other news outlets argue the situation is much worse: hopes that Biden would be an extremely weak president, opposed by a strong and consolidated GOP opposition led by Donald Trump, have been dashed by the unsuccessful January 6 assault on the US Capitol by a mob of badly organized militant Trump supporters. As a result, according to these news outlets, Trump left Washington an outcast, while the US elite is consolidating around Biden, who is emerging as a strong and dangerous enemy of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The massive deployment of National Guard soldiers and other law enforcement in Washington during the Biden inauguration is interpreted as a powerful demonstration of force and resolve—something the Russians understand and can appreciate (Vzglyad, January 21).
The incoming administration is seen as a hostile force and there seems little scope or appetite for any serious compromise. The State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, opening the parliamentary session after the New Year/Christmas recess, castigated the US November elections as a sham marred by mass election fraud facilitated by the use of vote-by-mail ballots. “The US electoral system is archaic and untransparent,” according to Volodin, “The closure of Trump’s Twitter account was a violation of human rights.” Volodin declared the pro-Trump rioters arrested after January 6 to be “political prisoners” and criticized European nations and international bodies for being numb about widespread human rights violations in the US. Volodin was joined by leaders of the permitted loyal opposition parties in the Duma, who decreed the US as Russia’s archenemy and castigated opposition leader Alexei Navalny as an American agent and provocateur. He returned to Moscow following treatment in Germany after being poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Tomsk on August 20, 2020. Navalny was arrested immediately after landing in Moscow and has been incarcerated, awaiting trial (Znak.com, January 19).
There is one bright spot in the overall gloomy picture: the Biden team’s announced intention to prolong the New START nuclear arms control treaty scheduled to expire on February 5, 2021. The New START treaty allows a one-time extension for five years without the politically charged ratification procedure requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the US Senate. Moscow and Washington had been negotiating a possible prolongation of the New START in the November elections run-up. In October 2020, Putin made an important public concession overruling his diplomats in an apparent attempt to help Trump achieve a pre-election foreign policy coup (EDM, October 22, 2020). Today, the Kremlin has welcomed the Biden team’s intention to prolong the treaty (MilitaryNews, January 20).
But time is running short despite the apparent presence of political will on both sides to keep the New START and its onsite inspection regime working after February 5. The Senate has not yet confirmed key Biden cabinet positions and it is not clear who will be negotiating the New START prolongation. There is also a problem of Russia’s vast superiority in nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons not covered by the New START. After 1991, as the Cold War ended, the US unilaterally retired and eventually scrapped almost all of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons—both the delivery systems and the warheads themselves. Only several hundred nuclear bombs, designated for use by NATO-allied jets, have been left at bases in Europe. Russia has retained its nonstrategic nuclear arsenal. In the last two decades, it has been expanding it by deploying nuclear field artillery, different land, air and sea-based missiles, nuclear torpedoes and other weapons. If the New START is simply prolonged by five years without any modifications, Russia will keep its nuclear nonstrategic advantage, prompting the US to catch up by deploying additional weapons of its own, thus beginning a dangerous and destabilizing arms race. The last Russian proposal was to prolong the New START for only one year (instead of five) and make a “political decision” to declare a mutual “nuclear arms freeze” for a year. Another proposed option was to stop the production and deployment of new strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons, but without any onsite verification of the “freeze,” on the condition that Washington would not make any other additional demands. The additional year could be used to negotiate a new “comprehensive” arms control agreement (MilitaryNews, October 20). The Trump White House rejected it because it lacked verification procedures and did not contain a demand that China must join the talks.
It is not clear if Putin’s “October concession” on the New START is still on the table or, with Trump out of office, Moscow has fallen back on its starting position of prolongation without any preconditions. There is also the inherent problem of new nuclear superweapons that Putin has been boasting about—Hyperspeed rockets, nuclear-driven intercontinental torpedoes and cruise missiles—also not covered by the 2012 New START treaty. According to the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Konstantin Kosachev, “The Americans will not be able to extract any concessions from us to prolong the New START” (RIA Novotsi, January 20). The statement seems to signal ether a prolongation without any preconditions or expiration.
Officials in Moscow believe that the Biden administration sees both China and Russia as its primary geopolitical opponents. While China is seen as the rising power, however, Russia as the weak link would be targeted by an array of punitive sanctions in response to the prosecution of Navalny or the recent massive hacker attack on US institutions and businesses. Sanctions could also be imposed for violating the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, because Navalny, similarly to Sergei Skripal in 2018, was allegedly attacked using the Novichok nerve agent. In any case, a ramped-up confrontation with Washington is seen in Moscow as virtually inevitable. The Kremlin announced no plans at present for Biden and Putin to meet or simply to talk by phone (MilitaryNews, January 21).