How Will Biden’s Picks for Projected Cabinet Affect US-Russia Relations


by Tim Korso

The Democrat’s team has already started the preparations to move into the White House in January. The General Services Administration (GSA) initiated the transition process to a new administration with praise from POTUS, who nonetheless continues to challenge the results of the election, which so far project Biden as the winner.

Democrat Joe Biden, who currently leads in the US presidential election with 306 Electoral College votes, has started revealing his picks for key positions in his projected administration. In the event of Biden indeed being elected, most of these posts will be held by seasoned officials, many of whom, in turn, come from the Barack Obama administration.

Among them is Linda Thomas‑Greenfield – a veteran diplomat, who worked as US ambassador to Liberia, head of the US Foreign Service, and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Biden picked her to become the new US envoy to the UN if he’s indeed elected.

Another Obama-era official, Jake Sullivan, is projected to be national security adviser. He is expected to once again work with Biden, but this time in as an adviser to the president, should the Democrat win the Electoral College in December. Sullivan previously worked as the Director of Policy Planning for Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state. In that capacity, he reportedly played a major role in starting the negotiations with Iran regarding the nuclear deal.

Biden’s Foreign Policy Team and Its Potential Impact on Relations With Moscow

Former Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken will hold the main diplomatic post in the projected Biden-Harris administration. While the yet-to-be appointed secretary of state has not yet clarified his posture towards Russia, he took a tough stance back in 2014 when Moscow’s relations with the West countries started to deteriorate.

“Putin is extraordinarily calm, matter-of-fact. He does not get ruffled. He may say hard things, but he says them in a very calm, almost matter-of-fact way. […] Unfortunately, President Putin simply speaks mistruth after mistruth and tries to misinform”, Biden’s pick for the secretary of state said of the Russian president in a 2017 interview with PBS Frontline.

Despite that, Blinken did not rule out the normalisation of relations between the US and Russia, but only if the Russian president changes his outlook on world politics and changes his country’s course.

There will be no major shift with regard to US policy towards Russia, should Blinken become the new secretary of state, while the chances for some “unpleasant surprises”, persist, programme director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Ivan Timofeev, believes. One of the likely scenarios is the introduction of new sanctions concerning allegations of opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, the expert suggests. At the same time, it would be wrong to say that policy will not change at all under the new cabinet, should Biden win, Timofeev notes.

“This team will take into consideration the real consequences of its political decisions, and will thus not undertake harsh measures [against Russia] for no good reason”, Timofeev says.

As an example, the RIAC expert brings up the Nord Stream 2 project, which the Trump administration is seeking to shut down for good using sanctions. Timofeev suggests that the projected Biden administration will continue putting pressure on the project, but will still listen to the arguments of its European partners, unlike Trump. Changes can also be made to the technical part of diplomatic ties, especially in terms of returning some of the diplomatic staffers expelled over the few last years.

Biden is yet to fill in another post that might have an effect on relations with Russia – secretary of defence. Media outlets have speculated that the Democrat might pick former Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Michèle Flournoy as his Pentagon chief. Flournoy in the past championed arms control efforts – something that is very important for Russia, indicates chief expert of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Security at Russia’s MGIMO University, Andrey Baklitsky. He added that Flournoy is respected on both sides of the aisle, and hence her potential appointment should not be met with opposition.

However, the top figures, like the secretaries of state and defence, are not the only ones that might shape Washington’s policy towards the Kremlin, Baklitsky says, adding that their deputies also have a significant impact on foreign policy. The Democrats have numerous potential candidates for these posts, with some of them more sceptical about arms treaties than Flournoy, Baklitsky stresses. Biden, however, is yet to announce, who will get those posts.

Will Biden’s Appointees Actually Take Up Their Posts?

Apart from Sullivan and Blinken, Biden announced the return of many other Obama-era politicians as a part of his projected cabinet. Among them are Ron Klain, whom the Democrat named Chief of Staff, former Deputy National Security Adviser Avril Haines, whom Biden wants to be the Director of National Intelligence and Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, who might return to hold the to-be-created post of special envoy for climate change.

Still, all of Biden’s appointments are far from being guaranteed. He is yet to win the Electoral College vote in December as his opponent, Donald Trump seeks to tip the scales in his favour by disputing the election results in several states.

In addition, Biden risks facing opposition in the Senate, which will be tasked with approving his cabinet appointments. While the Senate majority is yet to be determined because of run-off elections in Georgia (slated for January), should it remain under GOP control, the appointments might not go smoothly. According to some media reports, however, the Democrat might take a page from his Republican opponent’s playbook in order to resolve the impasse – appointing his secretaries in an acting capacity, something that does not require Senate approval.



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