• November 28, 2021

The Biden Administration Will Have Its Hands Full With Russia

Not all policy of the last four years will be discarded; while there are certain to be many points of divergence, the incoming Biden-Harris administration may very well stay the course of its predecessors in domains like NATO spending. While Trump claims credit, McFaul notes that it was Barack Obama and Angela Merkel who first pushed for NATO members to contribute more.

Economic sanctions on Russian individuals and companies will remain in place too, McFaul predicts. That list currently includes Russian state-owned firms, state officials, and oligarchs. “Unless Putin changes his behavior, I don’t see the conditions under which a Biden administration will change that, and I think that’s good,” he says.

“The one place where I have more of a question mark is about Ukraine,” McFaul says, which the previous administration at first engaged with productively. “In the middle of all that, President Trump messed it all up by trying to leverage that assistance to help his reelection campaign,” says McFaul. “That did great damage to our bilateral relationship with Ukraine. And in my view, there is nothing more important for containing Putin’s Russia than helping Ukraine succeed.” While broad contours of cooperation will remain in place, McFaul says, more sophisticated engagement with the Ukrainian government and with Ukrainian society—economic and military assistance, in particular—should be a foreign policy priority.

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“They’re bracing for more confrontational messaging, at least from the White House,” McFaul says. “At a minimum, we just want to avoid worse-case disasters in the US-Russia relationship.”

“We don’t spend enough time thinking about or writing about the dogs that don’t bark, the crises that don’t happen,” McFaul says. “Nobody ever writes a book about the non-war or the revolution that almost happened. There are not a lot of books on those topics. And yet a lot of government work, and certainly a lot of diplomacy, is exactly that.” Regular, comprehensive, and professional dialogs with Russian government counterparts should help defuse those kinds of crises.

The fate of the US-Russia relationship also depends on what happens below the state-to-state level. “Another tragedy of the last four years—of which I would say both societies and countries participated in—was the reduction of connectivity between Russian society and American society, broadly speaking, including in the tech world,” McFaul says. “When I was ambassador I was a huge tech advocate. We did all kinds of creative things—I had a Silicon Valley monthly seminar series at my house—and this was just such a giant possibility for win-win outcomes between Russian entrepreneurs, American entrepreneurs, Russian students, American students.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, followed by the election interference in 2016, caused this to be shoved to the side. “ I think there was some Russiaphobia that happened inside America as a result of that whole mess,” McFaul says.

“Russia is not just Vladimir Putin. It is a complex, deep society with rich people and poor people, urban-rural divides, ethnic divides … it’s a fantastic mosaic,” says McFaul. “And as somebody who’s lived there for many years of my life, and used to host Russians here in the Valley all the time, it’s just striking how that all ground to a halt. I hope the Biden team will think seriously about how to resurrect at least some components of that—that society-to-society interaction between our two countries.”

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