It’s a critical time for relations between Russia and the United States. The last four years of president Trump denying the Kremlin’s election interference and praising Vladimir Putin have undermined US credibility and enabled cyberthreats to elections. Several key US-Russia issues meanwhile remain in limbo, from nuclear arms reduction to future Washington policy on sanctions and Ukraine military assistance. And the future of Putin’s time in the presidency itself remains uncertain. For the Biden-Harris administration, the stakes of managing this relationship are high.
Michael McFaul knows what it’s like to deal with Vladimir Putin face to face. Having served as both United States ambassador to Russia and the National Security Council’s senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs in the Obama administration, he personally witnessed rising tensions in US-Russia relations and worked to manage them. While living in Moscow, he recounts in his book From Cold War to Hot Peace, he and his family were even tailed by the FSB; embassy staff and visitors were harassed and surveilled by Russian officers posted outside.
Russia has been a relatively consistent feature of US headlines in the last four years, from Trump and Putin’s personal interactions to the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. Whatever the Biden-Harris administration inherits was heavily shaped both by the Trump administration and the president himself. Early even in his 2016 campaign, Trump developed a pattern of praising the Russian president and touting his ability to forge closer ties between Washington and Moscow. “I would start by distinguishing between the Trump administration’s handling of the bilateral relationship with Russia and President Trump personally,” McFaul says. “It’s a paradox; it’s something new in American foreign policy, but I think it’s something that’s worth noting.”
“I want to be clear: I’m not against American presidents engaging with Russian presidents or Communist Party leaders or even, going way back, czars in Moscow—if that engagement leads to outcomes that are good for the American national interest,” McFaul says. “If you look at Trump’s record of engagement, and befriending, and happy talk about Putin, it never led to any tangible, concrete outcome that I think was good for American security or good for American prosperity or advanced democratic values.”
But for all Trump did or said—like siding with the Russian president over US intelligence agencies in regard to the 2016 election interference—McFaul stresses that Trump’s administration took a different tack. There were certainly exceptions, including campaign aides (later, administration officials) who maintained heavy and secretive contact with Russian operatives in 2016, and presidential aides who threatened to withhold Ukraine’s military aid to pressure Kiev into helping Trump’s reelection bid.
Many officials, however, didn’t toe that line. “There was a pretty big divide between the president himself and lots of his national security team. I don’t think national security adviser H. R. McMaster had any illusions about what happened in 2016.” Christopher Krebs—former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency whom Trump fired for protecting the 2020 election—“had a very sober, clear-headed view about the potential threats to violations of the electoral system and the infrastructure, and I give him a great deal of credit,” McFaul says. “The great non-event of 2020 was the absence of direct interference in our basic election infrastructure. That’s a tremendous achievement.”
This split-track handling of Russia policy created opportunities for Putin in some cases and denied them in others; it’s a complicated picture. As far as opportunities for Putin go, McFaul cites what he calls the Trump withdrawal doctrine: “Time and time again, he just withdrew from multilateral organizations, treaties, pacts, the Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the INF Treaty, the World Health Organization.” McFaul also points to Trump’s failure to speak about universal values. “He never talked about democracy and human rights and the rule of law in Russia or Belarus—or even places like China. He barely mentioned it.” This damaged the United States’ image as a global leader, especially given Trump’s corrosive domestic behavior. “It weakens our security as a country—it most certainly weakens us vis-à-vis an actor like Vladimir Putin—to have millions of Americans not believing in the integrity and the legitimacy of our democratic process and our elections,” McFaul says. He adds that Trump even seems to have given Putin a pass for targeting US soldiers in Afghanistan, which crossed a line that should yield a White House response.
Yet the Trump era wasn’t a clean sweep for the Kremlin. After the 2016 election, Russian officials “were hoping for rapprochement—a big breakthrough in bilateral relations—and on the top of that list, they were hoping that President Trump would lift sanctions,” McFaul says. It didn’t happen. The United States ultimately did not lift sanctions on Russia; in fact, it imposed more (though some dispute their relative effectiveness). The US did not recognize Putin’s annexation of Crimea, nor did it dismantle NATO.
“I fully expect that president-elect Biden will not seek friendship with Vladimir Putin,” McFaul says, recalling that when Biden and Putin last met in 2011, there were no such overtures.
Many policy challenges will guide Washington’s engagement with Russia during the Biden-Harris administration. Democracy and human rights are key elements of that portfolio—and there, McFaul believes, the president-elect’s team will take a harder line with Moscow. “There is no question in my mind that president-elect Biden will speak much more openly about issues of democracy and human rights, including inside Russia,” McFaul says. “And that will create friction with the Kremlin, without doubt. They enjoyed the honeymoon that they’ve had about those sets of issues.”
The Biden-Harris administration will also have to repair the US relationship with NATO, which Trump spent his time in office undermining. “There’s nothing worse than misperceptions or miscalculations about our credibility to our NATO allies,” he says. “And I actually think that strengthening NATO and strengthening that commitment will reduce the likelihood of any kind of unintentional conflict with Russia.”
Trump’s ambassador to NATO recently pledged a “seamless” transition to the Biden administration, just weeks after Biden began announcing his planned appointments to key national security positions. These include Jake Sullivan for national security adviser, Linda Thomas-Greenfield for ambassador to the United Nations, and Antony Blinken for secretary of state. All are experienced foreign policy hands. Among other roles, Sullivan was national security adviser to vice president Biden, Thomas-Greenfield was a former assistant secretary of state and a 35-year Foreign Service veteran, and Blinken was a deputy assistant secretary of state.
For Russia, these announcements foreshadow a US emphasis on international engagement, McFaul says. Both Biden and Blinken have extensive history with Ukraine and other surrounding countries, meaning Washington is likely to up its engagement with Russia and surrounding countries—though McFaul is clear that such diplomacy is not merely about confrontation.
“I do think there will be, and should be, some areas of cooperation, and at the top of that list I would put arms control,” McFaul argues. “I fully expect that President Biden will seek to extend the New START Treaty,” for which talks have been ongoing. “He was the point person for its ratification, after all, back in 2010. To me, that’s a no-brainer, and that’s good for America.” Strategic talks with Moscow stalled under the Trump administration, but they are an essential mode of engagement, McFaul says.
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.
“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.”
All told, relations between Washington and Moscow are hardly in excellent shape, as with many of the United States’ international relationships coming out of the Trump administration. For the incoming Biden-Harris administration and the many civil servants that will work under its leadership, there’s a long list of tasks ahead, from better engaging with Ukraine to repairing relations with the NATO bloc to developing a proactive strategy for supporting US ideas abroad. “The Chinese and the Russians are spending literally billions of dollars on their information, disinformation, media, propaganda,” McFaul says. “I think that what we’re doing is pretty feckless in comparison. And I think the Biden administration needs to think about this hard.”
Yet a more confrontational posture from the Biden-Harris administration towards the Kremlin doesn’t necessitate US-Russia instability. In this case, quite the contrary. “If Blinken fills out his Europe team and his Russia team with similar kinds of professionals,” McFaul says, “that might give some balance to what has been a pretty rocky and volatile relationship during the Trump era.”
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