Russia waits — warily — for Joe Biden to chart course on relations

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There may be more head-scratching in the Kremlin than anywhere else in the world right now as Russian leaders try to get used to the idea of a President Biden.

President Trump was accused of being too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but his administration also saw a major U.S. military buildup, stepped-up offensive arms sales to Ukraine and the scrapping of major multilateral agreements on nuclear arms, surveillance flights and Iran’s nuclear programs.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his team are talking about taking a tougher line on Russia but also of quickly negotiating an extension of a major arms control deal that Mr. Trump has left dangling. Mr. Putin is one of the most prominent international holdouts among world leaders who have yet to formally congratulate the Democrat a full month after the U.S. election.

Mr. Trump spoke repeatedly about the desirability of better U.S.-Russian relations. Mr. Biden, whose experience dealing with Moscow dates back to the days of the Soviet Union and who once referred to Mr. Putin as a “KGB thug,” and his top aides have sounded a far more skeptical note, particularly on human rights and the state of democracy in Mr. Putin‘s Russia.

Mr. Putin, “like most autocratic rulers, attributes pivotal importance to personal ties, yet he apparently cannot find a way to connect with Biden,” Pavel K. Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, and longtime analyst of the Russian political system, wrote this week in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation.

In some of his most extensive public remarks since the election, Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov told a Brookings Institution forum Wednesday that Moscow is seeking “to have pragmatic relations, friendly relations with the United States” under the new administration.

“We are two great powers,” he said. “The whole world depends upon the relations between the United States and Russia.”

Although Mr. Antonov sidestepped questions about Russia‘s acknowledgment of Mr. Biden‘s victory, Mr. Putin has tacitly appeared to welcome a Biden administration over a second Trump administration. The former vice president has appeared more open to striking a deal to extend the New START arms control treaty, set to expire barely two weeks after Mr. Biden takes office.

Mr. Biden said last year that if elected, he would pursue an extension of the 2010 treaty, which he called “an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia, and use that as a foundation for new arms control agreements.”

The last remaining arms deal between the two nuclear powers, New START limits the number of deployable U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons at 1,550.

“Our country needs New START as much as the United States,” Mr. Antonov said. “We have time,” he said.

Wary of Biden

Mr. Putin isn’t the only Russian wary of what the change in power at the White House will bring. A poll by Russia’s Levada Center this week found that a majority of Russians don’t believe that bilateral relations will improve under a Biden administration.

A mere 12% of Russians who responded to the poll said they believe relations will improve during Mr. Biden‘s tenure. The results paint a stark contrast to a 2016 poll when 46% of respondents said ties would improve during the Trump administration.

By contrast, 45% of Russian respondents polled in November said relations would not change materially under Mr. Biden, while 30% predicted they would get worse.

The recent presidential battle hasn’t helped the U.S. image in Russia, either: 51% of those polled in November said they view the U.S. in a “bad” or “very bad” light, up from 46% in the summer.

As the U.S. and Russia navigate their ever-changing relationship, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization urged both parties to continue renewed talks.

“We welcome the dialogue between [the] U.S. and Russia to find a way forward because we should not want to find ourselves in a situation where there is no agreement regulating the number of nuclear warheads,” Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday.

During a meeting this week of the foreign ministers of the NATO alliance, the pact discussed “Russia‘s continued military buildup in our neighborhood, as well as arms control,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

“We should not find ourselves in a situation where there is no agreement regulating the number of nuclear warheads,” he said, referencing New START.

Mr. Trump‘s team has been notably skeptical of arms accords, ending the Cold War-era INF Treaty on intermediate-range nuclear weapons with Russia and pulling out of the multilateral Open Skies Agreement on oversight surveillance flights.

Mr. Antonov said such resistance has led to a “further degradation of arms control.”

He said the U.S. pullout from the Open Skies Treaty put the entire agreement “on the brink of collapse” and that the White House made “erroneous steps” with regard to the INF Treaty. U.S. officials counter that Mr. Trump acted because Russia failed to meet its obligations under both accords.

In October, the U.S. and Russia appeared to be on the verge of a short-term deal to preserve New START after Moscow offered to freeze part of its nuclear arsenal in exchange for an extension. But the negotiations appeared to have stalled after Mr. Biden‘s victory as Moscow waits to attempt to quickly ratify a new agreement.

“We see that the United States does not intend to ratify the treaty, at least for now,” said Mr. Antonov, expressing optimism with a new administration.

Mr. Biden and many of his top advisers are veterans of the Obama administration’s ill-fated “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations that ended definitively with Mr. Putin‘s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Mr. Baev said Mr. Biden‘s foreign policy team will likely be more predictable and unified than Mr. Trump‘s, but perhaps no easier for Mr. Putin to deal with in the long run.

“The last four years saw a deep deterioration in Russian-U.S. relations and plenty of frustration in Moscow regarding the setbacks in the much-anticipated high-level bilateral dialogue,” he wrote.

“The incoming Biden administration only adds to this frustration because its promise of a coherent and predictable foreign policy is set to reduce Russia‘s space for maverick maneuvering in a disorganized international arena.”

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