At a December 7 news conference, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on speculation that Anatoly Chubais, the former Russian deputy prime minister who was recently removed as head of the state nanotechnology firm Rusnano, could be tapped as Russia’s negotiator with a Joe Biden U.S. presidential administration next year.
“Achieving sustainable development goals could become one of the elements in the bilateral dialogue between Moscow and Washington, but it is not,” Peskov said. “Because this dialogue is generally far from being in the best state right now, and not because of Moscow."
Peskov’s assertion that Moscow is not to blame for icy Russia-U.S. relations is false.
Russia has often pointed to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law passed in 2012 mandating sanctions on individuals suspected of human rights violations. The law sought to punish Russians responsible for the death while in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax adviser who’d investigated fraud involving top officials.
No doubt the Magnitsky Act caused friction. But the major breakdown in Russian-U.S. relations came in 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, annexed it, and then fomented a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that continues to this day.
Those actions led to U.S. sanctions against Russia, starting mainly with travel bans and asset freezes on individuals believed to have facilitated or benefited from the annexation of Crimea and/or the war in Donbas.
Russia only worsened the situation beginning in 2016 by launching a sophisticated multifaceted influence operation to interfere in U.S. domestic politics, most notably the 2016 presidential election.
Investigations uncovered a wide range of Russian actions, from planting unregistered foreign agents like Maria Butina to the cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee email server and leaks of Democratic Party emails to damage the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Armies of online trolls and Russian state media railed against U.S. foreign policy and spread pro-Kremlin talking points on major issues such as Ukraine and Syria. Trolls often posed as American citizens.
In one case, a popular Twitter account with 136,000 followers posing as a Tennessee Republican party account under the name @TEN_GOP turned out to be operated by Russians. Those Russians eventually were indicted in 2018 by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether, in doing so, it coordinated with Trump campaign associates.
Another factor complicating U.S.-Russian relations: a pattern since 2014 of unsafe behavior by Russian military ships, aircraft and troops in various regions, including the Black Sea, the Pacific Ocean and northern Syria.
In one such incident earlier this year, U.S. military personnel in Syria were reportedly injured in a collision with Russian military vehicles on patrol. While each side blamed the other, the U.S. troops insisted the Russians had violated the U.S. security zone.
Despite U.S. sanctions against Russian companies and individuals, Russia has offered little to improve relations. It is unclear whether this will change under Biden, who was Barack Obama’s vice president.
After Obama assumed office in 2009, his administration proclaimed a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations following several years of heated rhetoric between the two countries and Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia. The reset didn’t stop a string of subsequent clashes over foreign policy, including U.S. support for the revolution in Libya in 2011, passage of the Magnitsky Act, and Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of classified U.S. materials about secret surveillance programs.
Some critics denounced Obama’s Russia reset policy as too conciliatory. Many cited his response to the August 2013 chemical attack in East Ghouta, Syria. Despite declaring chemical weapons use a “red line” that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad must not cross, the Obama administration declined to take military action. Instead, it accepted a Russian proposal to have Syria admit to and dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal.
Russian propaganda, whether disseminated openly by state-owned media or by paid surrogates, has been hostile toward Biden and his fellow Democrats. Biden’s cabinet picks and hires have already started to draw Russian ire: after Biden announced he had picked Antony Blinken, an Obama administration deputy national security advisor and deputy secretary of state, to be the new secretary of state, a fake quote attributed to Blinken calling Vladimir Putin a “criminal” and circulated by Russian media surfaced on Blinken’s Wikipedia page.
One of Russia’s most popular news programs recently attacked Jen Psaki, who was Obama’s White House communications director and whom Biden has picked to be his White House press secretary. In 2014, when Psaki was serving as a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Russian media and internet trolls attributed fake quotes to her to make her appear ignorant of Russian and Ukrainian geography.
The Voice of America on November 19 quoted several diplomats as saying they expected Biden to take a harsher tone toward Moscow. Among Biden’s foreign policy advisers is Michael Carpenter, who has argued for imposing tougher sanctions on Russia that “will have an immediate economic impact.”
Another former Obama official who may return under Biden, Victoria Nuland, has also voiced support for tougher sanctions and other measures to deter Russia.