In the wake of Western efforts to develop a cooperative post–Cold War relationship with Russia, the country has reemerged as a top U.S. rival and an object of mistrust and suspicion. To its critics in Washington, including many of the 2020 Democratic contenders, Moscow’s foreign policy has become dangerously aggressive in recent years, from military intervention in Ukraine and Syria to interference in Western elections to violation of nuclear treaties. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tightened his grip on power at home, and many experts speculate that he will find a way to stay in office when his term ends in 2024.
Under the Barack Obama administration, the United States and its allies responded largely by seeking to isolate Moscow, ejecting Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized countries and ratcheting up economic sanctions. Since then, President Donald J. Trump’s unorthodox approach has stirred controversy, most notably his personal diplomacy with Putin and his downplaying of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump has also repeatedly questioned the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which previous administrations have seen as a bulwark against Russian pressure. At the same time, Trump has added new sanctions to those already in place against Russia and agreed to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, though the president’s handling of the latter has triggered an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.
The next president will face major decisions on whether to resume nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia and how to handle agreements still in force. Trump withdrew the United States from one major agreement, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; like Obama, Trump faulted Moscow for violating it. Another agreement, the 2011 New START treaty, is set to expire in 2021 but can be extended for another five years.