As the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in the United States became clear, many Russians began to reflect on what the result might mean for Russia’s position in global affairs. While most Russians did not have a preference for the winner, the fierce political contestation in the US attracted massive attention, and not merely because of the entertainment value (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, November 4). Official Kremlin propaganda has unsuccessfully sought to present this exercise of public will on the other side of the world as a political circus or to interpret the divisions within the US electorate as a profound crisis of democracy (Republic.ru, November 5). The predictions of violent chaos in the streets of Washington, DC, and other US cities were disappointed; and in the days of meticulous counting of votes, Russians have had time to contemplate the issues that motivated millions of Americans to opt for change—or against it (see EDM, November 5).
One immediately clear difference from the US elections of four years ago is that Russia has been almost entirely absent from the heated and multifarious political debates throughout the United States. This is only partly a consequence of cautious self-restraint on the part of Russian special services from interfering in the electoral process (Izvestia, November 5). More significant has been Moscow’s patent inability to make a difference in the key international problems that concern US voters: from the COVID-19 pandemic to world trade to the rise of China to climate change. This contraction of Russia’s profile as a major international troublemaker does not translate into opportunities for improving bilateral US-Russian relations, and most experts expect a further tightening of the Western sanctions regime (VTimes, November 5). Quite remarkably, some influential voices in Moscow now argue against the usual exploitation of the confrontation with the West for domestic purposes and habitual portrayal of the US as Russia’s inherently hostile adversary (Kommersant, November 2).
One area where some positive developments could still happen is in arms control, which experienced a severe degradation during Donald Trump’s presidency. The most pressing issue now is the temporary prolongation of the New START strategic nuclear weapons limitation treaty, signed at the apex of the last US-Russian “reset,” in 2010. The treaty is scheduled to expire in February 2021 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 1). President Vladimir Putin has offered some concessions to the US demands for freezing nuclear arsenals but has so far been disappointed by the constrained response from Washington (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 29). Engaging in meaningful talks with the US and reaching agreements that implicitly confirm Russia’s status as a nuclear superpower is a matter of exceptional importance for Moscow, but no US administration could possibly put any trust in Putin’s promises; so agreement on a workable verification scheme remains the key stumbling block (Carnegie.ru, October 30).
The arrival of a new though familiar US president could help mend strained Transatlantic relations, an issue Russia tracks with deep concern (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 1). Every step toward restoring political cohesion within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) makes Moscow’s traditional game of playing on US-European disagreements less profitable. At the same time, despite an incoming new administration to the White House, Russian policy planners cannot realistically expect any softening of Washington’s position on burden-sharing; the US will continue to expect the Europeans to increase expenditures on their own defense (Carnegie.ru, October 27). Moscow will additionally have to expect greater US attention to Ukraine from the top. Most immediately, however, Russia’s interactions with the more united West will be affected by the maturing political crisis in Belarus, where Putin has no good options at the moment (see EDM, September 10, October 26). In recent days, the European Union adopted fresh sanctions against the beleaguered Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Kommersant, November 6).
Russia’s newly exposed inability to manage conflicts around its borders affects its strategic partnership with China, and Moscow has to reevaluate its stance in the reconfigured and perhaps less emotionally charged US-China competition (Interfax, October 23). More than likely, the new US administration will place weightier emphasis on strengthening ties with Indo-Pacific allies and key regional powers, such as India—which will reduce Russia’s options for maneuvering (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 5). Beijing may demand greater loyalty from Moscow, but Washington should not be expected to offer significant new incentives capable of splitting the Russia-China proto-alliance (Russiancouncil.ru, November 2).
In the Middle East, Russia cannot count on any gains from the possible easing of tensions in US-Iranian relations or from a less cordial friendship between the new administration and Saudi Arabia. The main worry for Moscow will remain a probable drop in oil prices, but this could happen more as a consequence of the global recession than due to any shifts in US foreign and energy policies (Expert, October 28). As for the Russia-Turkey partnership, it is presently so firmly on the rocks that any issues President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might have with the incoming US administration will not translate into fixing relations with the Kremlin (RBC, November 8).
Perhaps the most significant impact of the US elections is that millions of Russians—by following the protracted and meticulous process of asserting a conclusive electoral result—have gained a clearer impression of democratic procedures and institutions, despite the propaganda noise produced by their state-controlled media (Kommersant, November 6). Public perceptions have moved away from the crude and politically convenient image of an aggressive superpower with a maverick leadership; instead, Russian have discovered a complex country struggling with difficult domestic problems and by no means bent on harming Russia (Forbes.ru, November 6). Yet while the US seems on track to rebuilding close ties with its traditional allies and reasserting leadership in global affairs, Russia is conspicuously failing to stop the war in the South Caucasus, to sort out the political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, or to undermine the pro-European candidate in the presidential elections in Moldova (Rosbalt, November 5).
Putin never managed to engage in a truly profitable dialogue with Trump, and he will now have to deal with a US president wise to the Kremlin leader’s machinations and inherently opposed to Russia’s kleptocratic authoritarian regime. He may hope for preoccupation in Washington with President-elect Joseph Biden’s domestic agenda, centered first of all on the COVID-19 pandemic, which in Russia is also raging out of control. Nevertheless, Russian breaches of international norms and rules going forward will receive substantially higher scrutiny and likely face a better-coordinated response from the rehabilitated Transatlantic alliance. The worst prospect, from the Kremlin perspective, is a renewed White House commitment to upholding democratic values, which do not need deliberate government promotion to become a powerful proposition.