After four years in which the Kremlin loomed large over US politics, the topics of collusion, Russian meddling or Ukrainian scandals have been largely absent from the campaign agenda as election day draws close.
It may be that Moscow still intends to interfere: the FBI director Christopher Wray said last month that the bureau has seen “very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020” – mainly involving misinformation with the primary goal of denigrating Joe Biden. And the US indictment of six Russian military intelligence hackers last week served as a reminder of the potential threat.
However, as Biden enters the final days of the campaign with a significant lead, Putin appears to be hedging his bets. The Russian president pointedly declined to amplify Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations about Biden’s son, Hunter, and his past business dealings in Ukraine, noting he did not “see anything criminal” in them. Putin has also pointed to possible common ground with the Democrats on social democratic ideology and arms control.
The Russian leader and the former vice-president certainly know each other well from past encounters, though the relationship lacks any of the warmth that Trump claims infuses his bond with the Russian leader.
“I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden told Putin at a 2011 meeting, according to an account he gave the New Yorker. “He looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said: ‘We understand one another.’”
Biden has not dwelled on the well-worn topics of Trump’s soft spot for Putin or Kremlin meddling – in part because coronavirus has cast such a long shadow over the election and the Biden team feel that voters are tired of hearing about Russia.
“The most resonant issues for American voters right now are Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and the dangers of white nationalism; by contrast, Russian election interference in 2016 seems more distant for those just trying to make ends meet,” said Michael Carpenter, a foreign policy adviser during Biden’s time as vice-president who remains in touch with the campaign.
It is possible, too, that “Russiagate” was never a major vote-winning issue: Trump’s supporters dismissed the charges as “fake news” and many of his opponents were more focused on other issues.
“Russia is a media and a Washington conversation. My students don’t care about Russia; they care about Black Lives Matter and MeToo,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a Russian-American professor of international affairs at the New School in New York.
Questions over the business dealings of Biden’s son in Ukraine have failed to resonate much beyond Trump’s core base, with a recent attempt to reopen allegations of Biden’s alleged wrongdoing in Ukraine largely falling flat.
If Moscow did indeed help put Trump in the White House, their man has done little to improve the the bilateral relationship over the past four years, despite his personal praise for Putin. But his disdain for western alliances and naked America-first self-interest is something that the Kremlin appreciates – and may explain why officials in Moscow want to see Trump win a second term.
“Putin and people around him might like Trump because he fits very nicely with their view of the world. He’s a graphic illustration of their logic that the world is moving away from liberal values and multilateralism and towards sovereignty and traditional values,” said Andrey Kortunov, of the Russian International Affairs Council.
He said that while Putin genuinely does not understand politicians such as Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron – and believes their talk of values to be hollow and cynical – with Trump there is a recognition of a kindred spirit, even if there is little affection for him as a person. The two men share “scepticism of international bodies, emphasis on sovereignty, a transactionalist approach to foreign policy and a feeling that discussions about values are mere hypocrisy”, said Kortunov.
Putin earlier this month noted Biden’s history of “sharp anti-Russian rhetoric” and contrasted it with Trump’s oft-stated desire for better ties with Moscow.
“Biden’s approach to Russia would involve supporting a dialogue on arms control, strategic stability, crisis management and risk reduction from a position of strength,” said Carpenter, saying it was simplistic to see the question of Russia policy as a black-and-white hawk or dove calculation.
Kortunov said that Russia, unlike Germany, Israel or China, is in the “privileged position” that the outcome of the election is likely to have little effect on bilateral relations. “But the bad news is that this is because it will be bad either way. Almost anything that could be broken is already broken,” he said. And there is little prospect of improvement.
Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, who was reportedly an intermediary for informal contacts with members of the Trump entourage after his 2016 victory, declined to say whether he favoured a Trump or Biden victory. But he said either way it was hard to imagine how things could get worse. “We are at the lowest point ever in the history of US-Russian relations so going even lower would be difficult,” he said.
Russia still denies all accusations of meddling in the 2016 election, whether it be the hacking of Democratic party servers or armies of internet trolls stirring up trouble on Facebook and Twitter.
But Fiona Hill, who was the national security council director for European and Russian affairs for three years of the Trump administration and testified at Trump’s impeachment hearing, said hawkish Russian security official Nikolai Patrushev and other top officials all but admitted Russia’s interference in the 2016 vote when she confronted them.
“The Russians said to us: ‘You guys left yourselves open.’ They were admitting it essentially. They said it’s on you that this got so out of hand.”
The officials suggested that the US had left Russia an open goal with its divisive politics – and she felt they had a point: “We were providing the raw materials, making our own mistakes,” she said. The Russian interference “wouldn’t have resonated without our deep polarisation and our structural issues”.
This time round, there are new allegations of Russian attempts to influence the political landscape, such as a rightwing site apparently set up by Russians and meant to influence US voters. But there is less attention now, perhaps because with the amount of disinformation flowing from the White House, the Russian efforts appear to be a drop in the ocean.
“The biggest risk to this election is not the Russians, it’s us,” said Hill.