President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Biden’s Russia Policy Will Be Shaped by His Priorities, Not Just His People

February 18, 2021
Paul Saunders

As U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration nominate and appoint senior officials across the federal government, pundits, journalists and experts have increasingly speculated about the consequences of these personnel decisions for U.S. policy. While this is a natural and potentially useful activity, it has limitations. Indeed, notwithstanding some fundamental truth in the adage that personnel is policy, and isolated individual officials who have had outsized impact, the policy process is more than an amalgamation of personnel decisions. How the new president defines his priorities—which are likely to skew heavily toward domestic affairs—and how effective he proves to be in organizing his administration to advance them will also be decisive. 

In America’s current political climate, it is hardly surprising that Biden’s key subordinates have spoken skeptically about Russia and the prospects for U.S.-Russian relations. Biden’s newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asserted that a potential Biden administration “would look to impose real, meaningful costs [on Russia] with coordinated sanctions, exposing corruption.” His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has said Biden “knows the dangerous path that Russia has decided to pursue and he will be robust and rigorous to fight back.” While not addressing Russia specifically, the president’s nominee to serve in the cabinet-level position of U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has signaled that she will follow Biden in “bringing stronger language and tougher tactics to the table when needed,” and that U.S. leadership should be rooted in “core values: support for democracy, respect for universal human rights and the promotion of peace and security.” Moscow resents the former two points and often disagrees with U.S. approaches to the latter.

Although Biden has nominated two arms control veterans for key posts at the State Department—Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary and Bonnie Jenkins as under secretary for arms control—it is unclear whether either will have significant opportunities to drive policy. Notwithstanding Sherman’s experience in working with Moscow on the Iran nuclear agreement, the deputy secretary has typically focused on managing the State Department, representing the department in interagency meetings and receiving visiting foreign officials when the secretary travels. For her part, Jenkins has been a staunch advocate for arms control engagement with Russia and the available agenda is extensive. Nevertheless, reassembling the broken pieces of the U.S.-Russia arms control system beyond extension of New START and rejoining the Open Skies treaty may prove quite difficult, due to domestic politics, mistrust of Russia and new international circumstances (like China’s rise) that complicate efforts to negotiate bilaterally. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who also has experience working on Russia-related issues, may face constraints similar to Sherman’s.

Victoria Nuland, nominated to serve as under secretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking post in the State Department, is often described as a “Russia hawk.” Indeed, Nuland is rare among Biden nominees in taking a hard line on arms control talks with Moscow; in her 2020 article in Foreign Affairs, she argued that Washington “should not grant Moscow what it wants most: a free rollover of New START without any negotiations to address Russia’s recent investments in short- and medium-range nuclear weapons systems and new conventional weapons.” At the same time Nuland suggested that U.S. and its allies offer such “carrots” to Russia, as joint investment fund, free-trade zones,  and a “pan-European security dialogue of the kind then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested in 2008.” While she will not be a cabinet-level official, Russian media have perhaps taken greater notice of Nuland’s nomination than of other administration appointments; seizing on an open letter signed by two dozen peace groups, the official newspaper of Russia’s government, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, published a story attacking Nuland for having “played a key role in facilitating the coup in Ukraine” and complaining that she distributed cookies to protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan in 2014. Nuland has stated publicly that she handed out sandwiches, not cookies, and that she gave them both to the demonstrators and to Berkut security forces.

Though U.S. intelligence officials should avoid taking policy positions, how policymakers understand Moscow’s intent and aims is a key driver in shaping policy. William Burns—whom Biden has nominated to serve as director of the CIA—has derisively described Russian President Vladimir Putin as “defiantly charmless” and, echoing former President Barack Obama, a “sullen and surly kid in the back of the classroom.” His boss, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, focused primarily on Russia’s cyberattacks and disinformation during her confirmation hearing, rather than larger questions surrounding Russia’s domestic and foreign policy conduct, though that may reflect Senators’ interest in Russia’s 2016 election interference over its 2015 intervention in Syria or its 2014 seizure of Crimea.

The White House has not yet nominated an assistant secretary of state for European affairs, the lead official handling Russia regularly and reporting to Nuland, or an assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, the official who typically oversees the Defense Department’s bilateral interactions with Moscow. Meanwhile, its publicly designated candidate to serve as the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Central Asia, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, is apparently no longer taking the job. Other relevant positions extend to the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia—though like the DNI and the CIA director this is an analytical rather than a policy job—and senior subcabinet posts in departments or agencies that often focus on Russia, such as the Departments of Energy (especially on nuclear issues), Commerce (trade, export controls), Treasury (investment, economic sanctions) and Justice (cyber and organized crime, election interference and other matters) and NASA. It is unlikely that political appointees will fill all of these posts, as opposed to career officials.

Another outstanding question is the extent to which Vice President Kamala Harris will play a role in Russia policy. Her immediate predecessors—Biden and Dick Cheney—were highly visible in speaking about Russia and European security and in visiting U.S. allies and other countries in Russia’s neighborhood. That said, each had an established track record on Russia policy before becoming vice president. Many of Harris’ past statements on Russia have more to do with election security or partisan opposition to Donald Trump than with substantive issues in U.S. foreign policy. Still, if Harris intends to run for president in the future, visibility on a challenge like Russia would strengthen her resume.

Notably, some of Biden’s senior-most aides have left the door cracked open for potential cooperation with Russia. In November, Blinken observed that “there’s a flip side” to U.S. efforts to deter and punish Russia because Putin is “looking to relieve Russia’s growing dependence on China,” suggesting that this could form a basis for new cooperation.  He also discussed normalization of relations with Russia in his recent first call with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during his confirmation hearing that “the United States has a long history of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region,” adding that he hoped this would continue. Even during the Trump administration—when many observers expressed anxiety about Trump-Putin interactions—Nuland said she was in favor of Trump talking to Russia, adding that “the only way to solve things with the Russians is leader-to-leader negotiations, because Putin is the only one who is allowed to make decisions there.” Nuland’s implied criticism of Trump was that “you don’t go in weak. You don’t go in with a divided alliance. You don’t go in agreeing with Putin’s perspectives on things and undercutting your traditional allies.” She also said that “whoever wins the U.S. presidential election…will—and should—try again with Putin.”

It is not easy to divine a Russia policy from the assembled statements of current and prospective administration officials because one can easily find almost whatever one wants to find—foundations for policies of confrontation, cautious cooperation or anything in between. In addition to these collected instincts and perspectives, including, of course, Biden’s own, which similarly vary, Russia policy will be shaped by broader structural factors—key among them, the new administration’s priorities and Biden’s effectiveness in advancing them. In other words, leadership also matters.

Thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that U.S.-Russian relations will be a top priority for Biden, who is currently concentrating his efforts on a coronavirus relief package and signing executive orders to unwind Trump administration policies on immigration, energy and climate change, and a host of other issues. Biden’s “Build Back Better” campaign slogan and plans focus overwhelmingly on domestic policy initiatives intended to create jobs, promote economic growth, modernize infrastructure and ensure equity in American society. Likewise—and following in Trump’s footsteps, albeit with a very different vision—the administration has made clear that its foreign policy will be domestically driven and linked to the American middle class.

Setting aside renewal of the New START arms control agreement—already accomplished—Russia’s role in this is primarily as a threat to American democracy or a source of foreign policy challenges. Notably, however, Biden’s campaign plans referred to neither Ukraine nor Syria—the two greatest regional collisions between Washington and Moscow—and emphasized ending “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have been key grievances for Russia.

Whether Biden will be effective in organizing his administration to advance his priorities will emerge in time. Having served 36 years in the United States Senate and eight years as vice president, he is more experienced in taking office than at least the last four U.S. presidents. Nevertheless, not all experience produces equal dividends in judgment. This ingredient—Biden’s leadership, both broadly as president and narrowly in defining and implementing his vision for U.S.-Russia relations—will be the most important component to shape U.S. policy.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is chairman and president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project and a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest. 

Photo by Adam Schultz in the public domain.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.