World Politics

As Putin fails to congratulate Biden, experts predict what the result means for US-Russia relations

Key Points
  • The Kremlin said on Monday it would wait for the official results of the U.S. presidential election before commenting on the outcome.
  • The move comes after European leaders congratulated Biden this weekend.
  • The Kremlin said it had noted Donald Trump's announcement of legal processes related to the vote.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via a teleconference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on September 29, 2020.

As world leaders congratulate Democrat Joe Biden for his projected victory in the U.S. presidential election, Russia's decision not to do so speaks volumes.

Analysts noted that while many European leaders congratulated Biden, expressing a desire to renew erstwhile tense relations with the U.S. and work constructively with the new administration, Russia did not comment on the projected win for Biden, with no message of congratulations coming from President Vladimir Putin this weekend.

It marks a stark change from 2016 when the Kremlin rushed to congratulate Trump on his victory.

Instead, on Monday, the Kremlin issued a cautious statement, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that it would await the official results of the election before commenting on the outcome, and that it had noted Trump's announcement of legal processes related to the vote.

World leaders congratulate Biden on his projected election win
World leaders congratulate Biden on his projected election win

Speaking to reporters, Peskov added that Putin had repeatedly said he was ready to work with any U.S. leader, Reuters reported, and that Russia hoped it could establish dialog with the new U.S. administration and find a way to normalize relations.

President-elect Biden secured victory on Saturday following projected wins in the key states of Pennsylvania and Nevada, according to NBC News projections.

The lack of congratulations from Moscow for Democrat Biden has not been lost on Russia-watchers.

"Think Putin is trying to send a message that Russia does not care what happens in the U.S. — that somehow Russia is above all this," Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said in a note Sunday. 

"Ridiculous given Putin (drove) the agenda in 2016, putting Trump in the White House and tried his best to get him re-elected," Ash added, alluding to Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election that saw Trump come to power.

Indeed, despite ongoing U.S. economic sanctions on Russia for that electoral interference — as well as its annexation of Crimea, role in a pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine, alleged role in a nerve agent attack in the U.K. and other misdemeanors — Putin appeared to enjoy congenial relations with Donald Trump.

The outgoing U.S. president made waves in 2018 when, following a high-profile summit with Putin in Helsinki, Trump said he believed Putin's repudiation of allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 vote, despite advice to the contrary from the U.S. intelligence community.

Now there is likely to be a change in the air when it comes to U.S.-Russia relations.

At the very least, analysts told CNBC before the result that they expected a Biden win to increase tensions between Washington and Moscow, and to raise the probability of new sanctions on Russia.

While on Friday, experts from risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence said they expected more cooperation between Biden and Europe on global issues such as "countering China, Russia, and climate change."

In their note, analysts led by Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Europe analysis, forecast "more cooperation on (a) tough stance toward the Kremlin, as well as policy towards the Ukraine and Belarus," and "meaningful progress" with international allies over NATO, bilateral trade and Iran.

Against this backdrop, Russia political analyst Anton Barbashin noted that "Biden's election is hardly great news" for the Kremlin.

"(The) Kremlin is well aware that Biden and even more so his team are highly determined to be considerably more assertive when it comes to countering Russia's influence in Europe, Russia's near-abroad and international arena as well," he told CNBC Monday.

"Sanctions are among the most pressing concerns of the Kremlin (if) Biden's administration translates into more sanctions. There is no clear understanding what type of sanctions Biden would be working to introduce ... but there is hardly a scenario where Kremlin would not suffer from it."

'Tough line versus Russia'

Any relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions on Russia are likely to be tied to progress on meaningful conflict resolution over Crimea, and in the Donbass region in east Ukraine (where two pro-Russian regions have declared themselves republics).

A peace agreement still eludes Moscow and Kiev, despite efforts by Germany and France to broker a lasting settlement. Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg, said Biden's focus was likely to be on stopping any additional aggression towards Ukraine.

He highlighted that as a "leading member" of the Senate foreign policy committee, Biden was well-versed on the conflicts in the region.

"This precedent suggests that he will also take a tough line versus Russia, trying to deter any further Russian aggression against or interference in Ukraine and other countries," Schmieding told CNBC Monday.

"Biden knows Europe well. Unlike Trump, he has no sympathy for self-styled 'strong men' such as Putin. He firmly backs NATO and the EU."

The degree of Biden's commitment to defending Europe from any potential Russian aggression will be seen in his stance on NATO, the military alliance whose members (particularly Germany) were lambasted by Trump repeatedly for not spending enough on defense.

"There are rumors of a NATO summit early in a Biden administration that will signal the pre-eminence of the transatlantic relationship and rapidly change the tone of the Trump years," Chris Skaluba, a former U.S. defense official and director of the Atlantic Council's Transatlantic Security Initiative, said in a note Saturday.

"Expect a quick effort to put the U.S.-EU relationship on better footing as well."

Skaluba added that one particular thing to watch is whether Biden reverses Trump's decision to remove thousands of U.S. troops from Germany.

"Doing so will be a down payment on ensuring adequate resources are available to deter Russia," he said. "A decision otherwise would indicate a gap between rhetoric and resources and that will augur further, if more polite, transatlantic tensions."