While we should expect some big changes over the next four years when it comes to U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, President Joe Biden will be willing to cooperate with Russia on select issues, Steven Pifer told Michael McFaul on the World Class Podcast.
Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, pointed out that while President Donald Trump had a warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, relations between the two countries did not significantly improve during Trump’s presidency. Pifer said he thinks Biden’s experience working in the region during his time as U.S. vice president puts him in a solid position to bring positive change to a tense relationship.
One major anticipated change will be a consistency between the U.S. president’s behavior and policy. Pifer noted that while Trump behaved cordially toward Putin, his administration was imposing sanctions on Moscow and openly supporting Ukraine, which has had a hostile relationship with Russia since it annexed Crimea in 2014.
Biden will also professionalize the dialogue between countries and will be prepared for a meeting with the Russians, should one occur. Biden and his team will do their homework and will be prepared to get work done, he added.
The Russians will likely find that Biden is willing to cooperate with them on some issues, Pifer said. One example is the extension of the New START Treaty, which was signed by President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010 and caps the number of strategic missiles and heavy bombers that the U.S. and Russia can possess.
“There will be pushback, and there are going to be some problems, but I think there is also going to be a more serious dialogue than we’ve seen in the last four years,” Pifer said. “That won’t change things overnight, but it could chip away at some of the tougher problems.”
New START as a Priority
The Biden team has indicated that it plans to tackle New START early on, as the treaty is set to expire in February. Extending New START is a real possibility, Pifer said, because the Russians have already indicated that they are in favor of continuing it.
Pifer told McFaul that he supports extending New START, as it will limit Russian strategic forces and will allow the U.S. to continue with its strategic modernization plans, which are all designed to fit within the treaty.
Pifer is also in favor of beginning discussions with Russia on topics like space cybersecurity and nuclear arms reductions, as well as other issues related to nuclear weapons that are not covered by the New START Treaty,
“A lot of those issues are not going to lend themselves to an immediate negotiation, but if you have detailed periodic talks, there’s a chance to at least exchange concerns and better understand the other side,” he said.
Sanctions as Part of a Policy
The U.S., along with the European Union, imposed what are arguably the most comprehensive sanctions against Russia in the history of U.S.-Russian relations following its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Pifer said he supports keeping these sanctions in place within the U.S.’s overall policy toward Russia going forward.
“You want to have sanctions fit in a policy that includes deterrence and containment, but you also want to have a dialogue, and sanctions can be used as a tool,” he said. “Sanctions are not an end in themselves, they're a tool to achieve a policy goal.”