This region continues to be one of vital security interest to the United States. As has long been the case for American presidents, Biden’s primary focus in Eastern Europe and Eurasia will be Russia.
Yet, President Joe Biden faces a uniquely difficult challenge as he takes office after four years of Trump’s emboldening of Russian President Vladimir Putin and five years of blatant Russian interference in U.S. domestic politics. Biden has made it clear to Russia that meddling in U.S. elections and arresting political opponents will be met with stiff punishment. Moreover, he has pledged to improve American cybersecurity infrastructure so as to reduce vulnerabilities to Russian attacks.
Additionally, Biden will work to restore faith in NATO — which is vital to containing the threat posed by Russia and maintaining transatlantic security — after it was ridiculed for years by Trump. Beyond Russia, Biden will seek to work closely with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to bolster Ukraine’s economy and defense capabilities through aid conditioned on anti-corruption progress.
Moreover, he will continue to recognize the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula as Ukrainian territory. Further to the west, Biden will be forced to confront authoritarianism in Hungary, though this will likely be lower on his list of priorities in the region. Meanwhile, Biden will keep an eye on Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as they serve as key locations for China’s Belt and Road initiative.
- Putin and Biden: The U.S.-Russia Divide
- A Careful Approach to Ukraine
- The Rise of Orban and Populism in Hungary
- Managing Central Asian Relations: Kazakhstan
- Managing Central Asian Relations: Kyrgyzstan
- Additional Reading
Putin and Biden: The U.S.-Russia Divide
Under the Trump administration, Russia’s actions, among serious allegations of election meddling, went relatively unchecked due to the personal relationship between former President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump went out of his way to avoid criticizing Putin, regardless of countless Russian hacks that compromised American intelligence. And on multiple occasions, Trump even suggested that he believed Putin over American intelligence.
But the Trump administration did condemn several issues that continue to be of concern into the Biden administration. They penalized Russia for cyberattacks and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and sanctioned the nation over the Nord Stream pipeline. However, Robert Muller’s probe into the 2016 election interference allegations still remains unresolved, as well as the cyber infiltration of government agencies in the SolarWinds hack.
The biggest issues the Biden administration will face is the clean up and increasing of security after the deeply destructive Solarwinds hack. The administration, in late February, appeared ready to sanction Russia for the hack — and several White House officials have been assigned to the inquiry. They Biden administration will have to acknowledge the broader cyberattacks, including election meddling, that Russia has been able to pull off following four years of Trump’s inability to sharply condemn them. Finally, the release of Alexei Navalny and his safety will be a priority regarding protecting democratic institutions and fair trials, and the administration has already prepared to impose sanctions for the act.
Biden has already started his administration on a completely different path with U.S.-Russia relations, compared to his predecessor. When he addressed Russia in his first visit to the State Department on February 4, Biden said he “made it clear to President [Vladimir] Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyber attacks, poisoning the citizens — are over.” Essentially, Biden said the U.S. would no longer roll over in the face of aggression and that the country was prepared to raise the cost on Russia — a shift in tone toward Moscow.
While he recognizes the value in engaging with Moscow in areas of mutual interests, Biden will aim to hold Russia and Putin accountable for their problems of the past. The Biden administration will continue sanctions over Russian aggression and opposes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
One positive development will be the new START treaty that will extend to 2026 and provide both parties with seven years to meet the treaty’s limits on strategic offensive arms. The most important action for the new administration is to follow through on these promises and keep consistent against a formidable and temperamental Russia.
A Careful Approach to Ukraine
The Trump administration in Ukraine focused more on digging up dirt on the Biden family and its ties to Ukraine than focusing on the ongoing geopolitical conflicts and general instability within the country and in the region. Without taking any hard stances, the administration maintained and strengthened Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia and continued to supply lethal military assistance. However, Trump never seemed committed to his administration’s policies.
The ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine will pose a serious challenge to the Biden administration until resolved. In March of 2014, Russia seized Crimea and some 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict. The annexation of Crimea was deemed illegal, however Russian forces remain in control and there have been failures in resolving the conflict on an international level. Other necessary issues to address will be the stagnating political reforms and anti-corruption measures that could bring much needed investment to the economy.
Biden has a personal relationship and high expectations for the success of U.S.-Ukraine relation. He visited the country six times as vice president during the Obama years. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed Biden’s inauguration into office earlier this year.
But regarding Crimea, the Biden administration will likely not recognize Crimea as Russian territory. However, a lot of this assistance will be conditioned on the necessary anti-corruption reforms needed to help Ukraine progress within its domestic politics.
The Rise of Orban and Populism in Hungary
Between the past two administrations, relations with Hungary have drastically changed. Under President Barack Obama, the United States avoided any bi-lateral contact because of the government’s efforts to establish authoritarianism. On the other hand, Prime Minister Viktor Orban developed exceptionally good relations with President Trump directly.
There continues to be issues from the Obama administration over the Orban’s government interpretation of democracy and sovereignty. Hungary supported Donald Trump specifically in the 2020 elections, and Biden’s hard stance on Russia would not be favorable to the nation.
While Biden has not yet taken a strong stance on relations with Hungary, the future of relations between the two countries is not on solid ground. Biden has expressed disapproval of what can be seen as the rise in authoritarianism in Hungary, but the two countries have similar interests in the stability of the EU and NATO, especially when it comes to relations with Germany. In addition the two countries agree on hosting an embassy in Jerusalem. President of the Parliament’s Foreign Committee Zsolt Nemeth believes that there is an opportunity for a pragmatic relationship but that will only be possible if the two can agree on democracy and political institutions.
Managing Central Asian Relations: Kazakhstan
While the Trump administration didn’t take a strictly hard stance on Kazakhstan, the future of its political institutions will be key for political stability in the region. On January 10, the country elected its Parliament, in which the Nur OTan ruling party bolstered its position. The new elections are proof of a more plural government, but there were still issues in which the opposition party claims it was a “rigged” system.
The stability of Kazakhstan is important for foreing policy with other key players, including Russia and China. The nation is a critical corridor for China’s Belt and Road initiative, and they remain in the Russian Eurasian Economic Union. Establishing solid relations with Kazakhstan could be promising for the Biden administration if they are hoping to improve relations with Central Asia.
Managing Central Asian Relations: Kyrgyzstan
On the same date as Kazakhstan (January 10), Kyrgyzstan voted in a new President, Sadyr Japarov, which follows an uprising that got rid of the previous regime of Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Under a new system of governance, the parliamentary system was replaced with a presidential system. The stability of this political transition will be an important consideration for the Biden administration.
The country remains a strategic ally of Russia and remains in the Eurasian Economic Union. There is a strong north-south divide that perpetuates deep poverty and ethnic conflicts. In addition, establishing relations with Kyrgyzstan and their new government will be important because the country is a critical corridor for China’s Belt and Road initiative.
- “Europe and Eurasia: Topic Page” — Council on Foreign Relations
- “Why are U.S.-Russia relations so challenging?” — Brookings Institution
- “U.S.-Russia Relations at a Crossroads” — Center for Strategic and International Studies
- “U.S.-Russian Relations in 20130” — Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- “Biden and Ukraine: A strategy for the new administration” — Atlantic Council
- “Biden has a proven track record with Ukraine: What can we expect from his administration?” — Wilson Center