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US elections 2020

For Russia, Biden's rise strengthens China's gravitational pull

Analysts in Moscow say Putin won't be counting on a 'reset' with US

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin: Analysts suggest difficult relations between the two will push Moscow deeper into China's orbit. (Source photos by Reuters and AP)

MOSCOW -- In the early days of the Barack Obama administration, then-Vice President Joe Biden briefly advocated for "pressing the reset button" in U.S. relations with Russia. Biden's upcoming presidency, however, looks more likely to push Russia into a closer relationship with China.

Analysts say Moscow is poised to expand cooperation with Beijing over the next fours years due to a risk of new sanctions and a growing perception that the American political system is dysfunctional. Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Nikkei Asia that a Biden presidency would likely leave Russia with "no other choice but to lean more on China for external support."

"Worsening relations with the United States," he said, "would embed Russia even deeper into China's orbit."

Back in 2009, soon after he was sworn in as vice president, Biden presented a foreign policy vision that included an olive branch for Moscow. "The United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide," he said at the time, stressing that "they coincide in many places."

Relations quickly soured, especially after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. And as a candidate in 2020, Biden campaigned for a significantly more hawkish approach. In an interview shortly before the polls, the Democratic nominee called Russia "the biggest threat to America right now."

He repeatedly accused the Kremlin of trying to undermine his candidacy and vowed to punish Russia over its alleged election interference. Long a critic of Russia's political system under President Vladimir Putin, he has indicated that he would offer greater support for Kremlin opponents within Russia and for neighboring countries like Ukraine that want to break away from Moscow's influence.

At the same time, after four years of Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy, Biden has promised to strengthen ties with the European Union and NATO.

One of the few areas where Biden has voiced a more conciliatory tone toward Russia is arms control. He has supported extending the New START Treaty, a 2010 U.S.-Russian agreement that limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons both countries are allowed to possess and deploy. However, the deal expires on Feb. 5, giving Biden just over two weeks after his inauguration to negotiate an extension with Moscow.

A Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system is displayed in Moscow's Victory Day Parade this past June. The New START treaty limiting American and Russian nuclear weapons expires about two weeks after the U.S. Inauguration Day.   © Reuters

Biden's statements have raised the prospect of a new sanctions package against Russia. Upon taking office, he will have several options waiting for him in Congress. Two of the most likely candidates are the Defending Elections against Trolls from Enemy Regimes Act and the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, nicknamed the "sanctions bill from hell." Both would impose new penalties against Russian state-owned banks and the country's energy sector, as well as prohibit U.S. entities from purchasing Russia's sovereign debt.

Further restrictions against the Russian financial system could follow if Congress decides to punish Moscow over the suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. Biden himself has expressed support for such a move, promising in September to "hold the Putin regime accountable for its crimes."

In the event that a Biden administration imposes new sanctions, Moscow is likely to look to Beijing for help in mitigating the damage.

Alexey Maslov, director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, predicted that further U.S. sanctions would encourage Russia and China to pursue new "joint financial-banking operations," such as establishing their own payment and settlement center that would allow them to bypass the U.S.-led SWIFT system.

"For the longest time, Russia did not want to create a parallel financial system because it regarded the current one as reliable, albeit unfair," he said. "But now there is no other choice, because if China offers its services and Chinese systems can process Russian payments across Asia, then Russia could very well agree and even propose its own options."

Then Vice President Biden meets with Putin in 2011. On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden called Russia "the biggest threat to America right now."   © Reuters

Over the past several years, Russia and China have sought to hedge against the risk of U.S. sanctions by reducing their reliance on the dollar. The share of the greenback in trade between the two countries declined from 90% in 2015 to 46% in the first quarter of 2020. Russia's central bank has also boosted the yuan's share of its foreign reserves from 1% in 2017 to over 14% in 2019, an increase that largely came at the dollar's expense.

Yet the threat of new sanctions is not the only factor likely to nudge Moscow closer to Beijing. The past four years have convinced Russian elites that regardless of who occupies the White House, relations with the U.S. will remain highly confrontational, and often unpredictable.

Dmitry Suslov, a professor of international relations at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Nikkei that Russia's leadership is "very skeptical" that Biden could restore normalcy either at home or abroad.

"From Russia's perspective, the political situation in the United States has not fundamentally changed as a result of the election," he said. "The intense political polarization that we have witnessed over the past four years is not going away anywhere, so obviously Biden will not have a broad mandate to govern."

Suslov explained that Moscow expects Biden to spend the better part of the next four years mired in all-consuming domestic political battles, making any significant breakthroughs in the U.S.-Russian relationship impossible.

Analysts say Russia is convinced that the intense political polarization in the U.S. will limit Biden's options as president.   © Reuters

Under these circumstances, Russia will try to avoid a new arms race or direct military confrontation with the U.S., but will hope for little else, Suslov said. Instead, it will prioritize strengthening ties with China and other rising powers like India.

This could have knock-on effects across Asia and beyond.

"The problem is that many of the decisions Russia will have to make over the next four years will have long-term, second-order effects that are not completely foreseeable now," said the Carnegie Moscow Center's Gabuev.

He cited Moscow's warm embrace of Chinese telecom giant Huawei as an example. He noted that Russia's decision to rely on Huawei to develop its fifth generation mobile networks could encourage countries in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa to follow suit.

Some influential voices in Moscow go even further. They argue that China is closing the gap with the U.S. faster than anyone expected, and that Russia should take advantage of a changing world.

Putin toasts Chinese President Xi Jinping to congratulate him on his birthday while visiting Tajikistan on June 15, 2019.   © Reuters

Andranik Migranyan, a professor at the Moscow Institute of International Relations and an informal adviser to the presidential administration, contended that 2020 would go down in history as the American equivalent of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, which heralded the end of Britain as a global power.

"The coronavirus pandemic exposed the fact that China, not the United States, is the world's leading superpower," he said. "China tried to be active and help everywhere, whereas the United States shut themselves in and did not show any signs of global leadership."

Migranyan argued that such an outcome suited Russia for now, since China, unlike the U.S., does not seek to "impose its ideology or foreign policy" on Moscow. In the long run, he predicted, Russia's geopolitical significance and enduring military strength would ensure cooperative relations between Moscow and Beijing.

"Putin once said that this enormous, ascendant country can be a threat or an opportunity for Russia," Migranyan said. "For now, China presents us with an opportunity to expand cooperation in all areas."

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