Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing the reality that his American experiment will likely come to an end on Jan. 20. The leader who orchestrated the subversion of the US political system by undermining the 2016 American electoral process, will have to contend with a new counterpart if pollsters are correct about next month’s election.
A Lesson in Geopolitics
Putin pulled off what his predecessors only dreamed of: throwing Washington into chaos, sowing doubt of democracy among voters, and pushing American off-balance as the global power broker. Under Putin — and largely due to the 2016 election of Trump — the Kremlin has achieved many of the ambitions laid forth in Aleksandr Dugin’s book Foundations of Geopolitics, which acts as a guidebook for returning glory to Moscow and is studied in some levels of the Russian military.
In short, it calls for alienating the UK, the creation of a France-German bloc, annexing Ukraine and other territories, causing rifts with Turkey, and most importantly, fueling instability in the US. One way it suggests carrying out the final point is by stoking racial tensions.
If Putin were to be judged by Dugin’s book alone, he would be considered a widely successful Russian president. However, the joyride seems to be coming to an end with the Trump administration unfurling in what could be the final months of his tenure in the Oval Office.
A Familiar Adversary in Biden
Without Trump, Putin will be back to dealing with a familiar foe in Democratic nominee Joe Biden. As vice president, Biden was involved in a “reset” of Washington-Moscow relations. The idea by former President Barack Obama was to bring the two states closer together. Before Obama, fundamental disagreements over missiles and regional issues caused division between the two states. Former President George W. Bush, like Trump, withdrew the US from an arms control treaty in pursuit of an amplified American military strategy in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Biden, while critical of Putin’s goal of reuniting the USSR (by force if needed), supported a thawing of relations. Some analysts agree with the idea of engaging Russia rather than making moves seemingly to spite the Kremlin, such as deploying missiles, canceling treaties, and levying sanctions.
“If all we do is moral outrage and sanction them, we aren’t going to make much progress,” said Fiona Hill, a former Russia policy specialist on the National Security Council. Hill was among those called in to testify against Trump in his impeachment trial.
Putin Weighs-In on Election
The Trump administration had become too close with Russia, and as a bulk of evidence suggests, even owes its 2016 victory to the Kremlin. Disinformation campaigns, prescribed in the Foundations of Geopolitics continue to play a role in influencing American voters.
What worked in 2016 isn’t cutting it now, although that is not for the White House’s lack of trying. The Trump administration has done little in the way of stopping Russian aggression with the president himself even encouraging the Kremlin to hack the Democratic National Committee and leak Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Therefore, with a Biden presidency, the Kremlin will be brought back to reality and Putin offered some sobering thoughts on that idea. Speaking on Russian state television on Wednesday, the Russian leader weighed-in on the 2020 US election, The Associated Press reported.
He condemned Biden’s “sharp anti-Russian rhetoric,” but admitted that those views are held by many in Washington, which has led to an impasse in smoothing the Washington-Moscow relation. The sentiment is largely the result of the Kremlin’s interference in US elections, but Putin of course denied having a hand in it.
During the first presidential debate, Biden referred to Trump as “Putin’s puppy,” and the Russia leader enjoyed that saying it “actually enhances our prestige, because they are talking about our incredible influence and power.”
Reaching Common Ground on Arms
Although Biden has pledged to punish Russia for its election interference, Putin sees an upside to dealing with Biden over Trump. Namely, the Trump administration has wrecked nearly every arms treaty it can, including the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with Moscow. Another treaty is set to expire Feb. 5 and the Trump administration is only now reversing its stance on renewing the deal. Previously, Trump was opposed to agreeing to an extension, however he is now pushing for an agreement before the Nov. 3 election.
On arms control, Putin is the much more grounded option if Putin has to choose one candidate to deal with. Biden brings with him decades of experience and as senator, even pushed the George W. Bush administration to bring new agreements with the Kremlin before the Senate so it could be worked on by the legislative body.
For the Russian leader, arms control agreements and treaties are of great political benefit. By negotiating and signing them with governments such as the US, the Kremlin earns goodwill from the international community. They can also be used as bargaining chips to reduce sanctions and win trade deals.
Essentially, arms agreements are political capital to Putin and now that Trump has cancelled the INF and Open Skies treaties, with the threat of another expiring, Moscow has plenty of leverage to bend a Biden White House to its will.
“This is a very serious element of our potential collaboration in the future,” Putin said, speaking about Biden’s willingness to negotiate with Russia.
Finding a New Card to Play
For Putin, a reckoning could be on the way if Biden wins in November, as Bloomberg reported.
“If Biden is elected, we will confront a consolidation of the West on an anti-Russian platform,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council.
A refreshed Washington would waste no time rallying allies to unite against Moscow. Already, the mere prospect of sanctions has forced the ruble to its lowest value since April.
If Putin is to preserve the influence he has built for Moscow on the international stage, he must find a way to counter a new American president, one who operates much more pragmatically and intelligently.
To do so, the Russian president will need to practice negotiating instead of manipulating. That requires being grounded in the reality of the situation and working from there. For Putin, the reality is that Trump is losing with American voters, Biden and his Democratic Party want to punish Russia, and Biden will go harder on Moscow. Now, Putin is counting his chips and seeing what cards he can play. Arms control will be a major one and by putting it into play, Putin will lessen the negative effects of a new administration in January.