As the news broke in November that Joe Biden had won enough states to be declared president-elect, congratulations poured in from world leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin was conspicuously absent from the list of well-wishers — and waited for more than a month, until the Electoral College vote last week, before congratulating him.
“It’s classic Putin,” says Konstantin Eggert, a Russian political commentator. “By not congratulating Biden for so long, he — in his eyes at least — proved that he’s tough, he’s strong, and, if need be, he’s ready to take the fight all the way to Washington.”
The two leaders have a history going back to when Biden was President Barack Obama’s vice president. According to Biden, he once told Putin he had looked into his eyes and didn’t think Putin had a soul. During the presidential election campaign, Biden called Russia “the biggest threat to America.” After a massive hack of U.S. government agencies was blamed on Russia this month, the president-elect said there would be costs for the perpetrators.
Still, that adversarial relationship doesn’t mean that Putin is unwilling to speak to Biden, Eggert says.
“For Putin, the priority always was to be seen as talking to the United States. And interestingly enough, in a very large measure, the Trump administration denied him this possibility,” Eggert says. “For him, being able to speak one-on-one with the United States is proof of Russia’s superpower status and his global role.”
It was Biden who announced in 2009 that it was time to “press the reset button” in relations with Russia. The Obama administration placed its bets on Dmitry Medvedev, whom Putin had installed as his successor after two terms as president. Medvedev was younger and more Western-oriented than his mentor, and Biden said on a visit to Moscow that if Putin — then prime minister — ran for a third presidential term, it would be bad for Russia. Putin ignored Biden’s admonitions and returned to the presidency. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Biden became the Obama administration’s point man on rallying European allies in support of Kyiv — and against Moscow.
Biden knows the former Soviet Union, having made his first trip to Moscow in 1973. Compared with the last three U.S. presidents, he will also take office with hands-on experience in dealing with Putin.
“They certainly know each other, but I think it’s a fairly realistic but probably brittle relationship,” says Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University. “I don’t think you’d expect any breakthrough anytime soon.”
Russia’s ruling class views the Biden administration as a mere continuation of the Obama presidency, says Moscow political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.
Putin will likely place little value on his personal rapport with Biden, according to Belkovsky. He says Putin learned his lesson after his good personal relationship with President Trump failed to prevent their countries’ ties from sinking to the lowest point since the Cold War.
“Putin has come to the conclusion that personal relations don’t add anything to the relationship. Even if they were really good or really bad, nothing would change either way,” Belkovsky says. “Putin doesn’t count on personal relations with American leaders. Today he only counts on the intersection of interests in certain areas.”
One of those areas is arms control. The New START treaty, the last agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, expires just 16 days after Biden’s inauguration.
“I think the No. 1 priority has to be the extension of New START,” Stent says. Other priorities in the relationship, she says, will be climate change and the future of economic sanctions against Russia that began under the Obama administration and only tightened under Trump.
“Another priority clearly for the Biden administration will be democracy promotion, human rights and global kleptocracy,” Stent says. “And these are issues where the relationship with Russia could well deteriorate.”
The Kremlin expects Biden — and Democratic administrations in general — to address human rights, Eggert says.
“The Kremlin looks at actions rather than words,” he says. Putin would start getting concerned if Biden took such steps as inviting Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to the White House or actively supporting the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, Eggert says.
How U.S. foreign policy is implemented will likely fall to Antony Blinken, Obama’s deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser, whom Biden has nominated as his secretary of state.
Stent says Blinken, who has worked closely with Biden, would bring back a sense of normalcy both within the U.S. administration and in its day-to-day dealings with Moscow.
“I think one could see a desire to, first of all, have a more coherent policy toward Russia — unlike the Trump administration, where the president himself had his own policy of trying to improve ties and the rest of the executive branch were much tougher,” she says. Diplomatic channels that “atrophied” in the Trump State Department are likely to be reestablished, Stent says.
In Moscow, Blinken is not expected to revive the close working relationship that Obama’s second secretary of state, John Kerry, developed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Eggert says that while the Kremlin viewed Kerry as weak and naive, Blinken is preceded by a much tougher reputation in Russia.
“Maybe he will be quite an unpleasant interlocutor for Lavrov, which may not be bad because the Russian political class only respects force and strength,” Eggert says.
But if Blinken represents Biden’s strength toward Russia, the president-elect’s son Hunter could become a liability.
Hunter Biden is currently under a federal tax investigation. He also sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was responsible for Ukraine as vice president.
“Putin will use his online trolls and disinformation to use this story to weaken Biden,” Eggert says. “But on the other hand, if he feels that the current administration is prepared to talk to him, I think he will not overstep a certain limit.”
For now, Putin is watching and waiting as the new administration prepares to take office. His public remarks about Biden have been restrained, just like his congratulations to the president-elect.
In fact, there is a certain amount of glee in the Kremlin about the results of the U.S. presidential election, Belkovsky says.
“Putin is very happy about the chaos in the U.S. political system and in tallying up the votes. The Kremlin believes that America no longer has the moral right to criticize Russia’s electoral system,” he says.
What’s important for Putin, Belkovsky says, is that political theater in the United States has discredited American democracy in the eyes of the world.