Belarus could become a flashpoint for confrontation between Washington and Moscow. The country has experienced almost daily protests and violent police crackdowns since presidential elections in August in which the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed victory amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging. Biden has criticised Trump’s silence about the violence committed by Lukashenko’s regime against pro-democracy activists. He promised to stand with the people of Belarus and support their democratic aspirations and to significantly expand sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
Ukraine is another potential flashpoint. Biden has pledged to increase US support for the country, including the supply of lethal weapons, while also calling on Russia to end its 'aggression' and 'occupation' of Ukraine.
A boost to NATO
The second core challenge for Russian foreign policy involves NATO. Moscow has consistently voiced its opposition to NATO’s global reach and enlargement. It argues that the alliance is a relic of the Cold War, which threatens Russian national interests.
NATO’s enhanced capabilities, global scope and enlargement were identified as the principal risk to Russian national security in the Kremlin’s 2014 Military Doctrine. Its 2015 National Security Strategy also makes several references to NATO, including the advance of its military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders.
Throughout his political career, Biden has been vocal in his support for NATO enlargement, including membership for Ukraine. During the presidential election campaign he was also very clear about his wish to repair America’s relationship with NATO. It’s thought that he intends to renew multilateralism and strengthen the alliance, which has been damaged by public spats during the Trump era.
Visible internal divisions over enlargement and funding have undermined NATO’s security and cohesion. Adversaries such as Russia are aware that cohesion – or a lack of it – is the alliance’s critical vulnerability. A reinvigorated, unified Euro-Atlantic alliance poses a significant challenge to Moscow, which will counter any attempts to kick-start the enlargement process in states such as Georgia or Ukraine.
Russia and its post-Soviet neighbours are unlikely to constitute foreign policy priorities for the incoming Biden administration. But several of the incoming administration’s priorities, such as bolstering NATO and promoting democracy, represent challenges for Moscow. The inaction of the Trump regime across the post-Soviet region, which could be interpreted by Moscow as either disinterest or tacit acquiescence, is likely to be replaced by a much more active approach.
This suggests that relations between Moscow and Washington are likely to become more antagonistic and confrontational, as the US intensifies its engagement in Russia’s backyard.