It was a sharp contrast with 2016, when Putin congratulated Donald Trump on his upset victory over Hillary Clinton shortly after the race was called by U.S. media outlets — and was one of the first foreign leaders to do so.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that the differences between 2016 and 2020 are “absolutely obvious,” citing promised legal challenges from Trump, who has refused to concede defeat.
But it might be unwise to read too little into a decision by Putin about the timing of an international message of congratulation or commiseration, given the alacrity of his telegram to Trump in 2016 and his repeated mention of the fact that he was the first to call U.S. President George W. Bush after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Here are some of the likely motives for Moscow’s hesitation this time around.
Undermining confidence in the U.S. electoral system and American democracy itself was a primary goal of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
This time around, Russian state media, ruling-party lawmakers, and commentators allied with the Kremlin appear to have been pursuing the same aim amid persistent tension between Moscow and Washington.
Russia’s top election official joined the chorus on November 9, saying without evidence that mail-in voting — which accounted for a large portion of ballots cast in the U.S. election due to concerns about the coronavirus — “leaves massive scope for possible falsifications.”
Putin, meanwhile, has said that Russia is ready to work with the winner, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated that on November 9 when he told reporters, “We believe it is appropriate to wait for the official results.”
At least on the surface, Putin’s silence on the result allows him to appear judicious while the state-controlled media and loyal politicians continue to seek to cast doubt on the U.S. electoral process before audiences both in Russia and abroad.
While governments from Kyiv to Washington accuse Russia of violating several treaties and subverting norms of conduct on the global stage, though actions such as its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its alleged poisoning of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018, Moscow often makes a show of playing by the rules while suggesting that others do not.
Amid repeated accusations of attacks on civilians and other rights violations in Syria, for instance, Russia has maintained that its own military presence in the Middle Eastern nation is legal because it has formal consent from President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and that U.S. forces were there illegally because they were not invited.
Domestically, Putin has been careful to play by at least the most prominent rules while maintaining power for more than two decades, leaving the presidency in 2008-12 to avoid violating the constitution and then engineering changes in the constitution this year that allow him to run for reelection in 2024 and 2030.
However convincing one believes its wait-and-see stance on the U.S. election result may be, the Kremlin can argue – and essentially has argued — that it is merely being careful to go by the book.
Part of Putin’s effort to increase Russia’s global clout and present it as an alternative to the United States has been a tendency to try to show that Moscow does not throw friends, allies, or supporters under the bus.
This may be factor in the Kremlin’s approach to the U.S. election results as well. While Putin denies accusations that Russia sought to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, and while relations have not improved despite Trump’s vows to try to improve them, he and Trump have praised one another and seemed to get along when they have met.
So, for Putin, it may be important — especially in signaling to Russians and to the leaders of countries he wants to keep or draw into Moscow’s orbit — to show that Russia is a reliable player who will not abandon a partner under pressure.
Personal And Political
While there are few signs of a strong personal animus, accounts suggest that there is no love lost between Biden and Putin, whose most substantial interaction may have come in March 2011, when the U.S. vice president met Russia’s then-No. 2 official during a visit to Moscow.
Biden later told The New Yorker that — in a play on Republican President George W. Bush’s remark that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul — he told Putin, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.”
On a less personal level, during the same trip, Biden took Russia to task over human rights issues he said clouded the country’s investment climate, including the “beating and detention” of protesters defending the right to free assembly, “allegations of misconduct” in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Putin’s most prominent foes, and the case of whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, whose death in jail in November 2009 became a major irritant in relations, helping to scuttle the Russia “reset” that Biden’s boss, President Barack Obama, launched after taking office that January.
Nothing To Lose?
U.S.-Russia ties have deteriorated further since then, in part because of Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
And despite some areas of potential cooperation and the sense that Russia may become less of a toxic topic in Washington, neither side seems to see much of a prospect for a thaw.
As a result, Putin may have calculated that whether or not he has anything to gain from playing a waiting game when it comes to the U.S. election results, he has little to lose.