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Russia gloated over U.S. election disarray. Now, it faces Biden’s tougher line.

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Alexander Natruskin Reuters

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Moscow on March 10, 2011.

MOSCOW — The reaction in Russia to Joe Biden’s projected victory was a mixture of delight over the enduring U.S. political divides and relief that the rifts weren’t as widely attributed to Moscow’s interference this time.

There was also notable silence from the Kremlin: As other world leaders rushed to congratulate the president elect, President Vladimir Putin remained silent more than a day after Biden’s acceptance speech, a snub that could forecast chilly future interactions between the two.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin isn’t making any statements because “there will be certain legal proceedings which were announced by the incumbent president and that’s why we believe it would be correct to wait for the official announcement,” referencing Trump’s refusal to concede the race as he pursues legal action to contest the voting tallies.

Even before election day, officials in Moscow repeatedly expressed pessimism that the countries’ strained relationship would improve regardless of the result.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said that Russia used cybertrickery, disinformation and other methods in the 2016 election to boost candidate Donald Trump and was working to do the same for him as president ahead of the 2020 vote. Russia has repeatedly denied that.

“It seems that there is already one loser in the presidential race — that is the procedure itself and, ultimately, democracy,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament,
wrote on Facebook.

“However, withdrawal from the main agenda the issue of ‘Russian meddling’ may prove to be, if not a positive, at least a stabilizing factor, and it will no longer be used by opponents in domestic political squabbles,” Kosachev added.

With Biden, Russia will not need a learning curve as with Trump. During his eight years as vice president, Biden held policy meetings with NATO leaders and conducted face-to-face talks with Putin as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations.

Four years ago, Putin congratulated Trump within hours of his acceptance speech. Asked what would make Biden’s projected victory official in the Kremlin’s view, Peskov declined to comment.

“In any case, we hope that with the next president of the U.S., we will manage to establish a dialogue and together agree on ways to normalize our bilateral relations,” Peskov said.

[For Russia, Biden is the foe they know. The Kremlin is studying old playbooks.]

Putin appeared to be hedging for the possibility of a Biden presidency in the weeks leading up to the U.S. elections. In an interview with Russian state television in late October, Putin said he didn’t “see anything criminal” about Hunter Biden’s past business ties in Russia or Ukraine, pouring cold water on a popular attack line from the Trump camp about Biden’s son.

Alexander Gabuev, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter that “a president who is not tainted by suspicion of being a Russian asset — and who knows how to organize a normal bureaucratic process for national security discussions — will be able to restore some guardrails” to the countries’ relations.

Among the top priorities for Russia is an extension of New START, a 10-year accord that places limits on the two countries’ nuclear warheads. If the 2010 treaty, which expires in February, is not extended or replaced, the world’s two biggest nuclear powers will return to an era without substantive restraints on their arsenals for the first time in decades.

Putin has said he would agree to a clause in the current treaty that allows the leaders of both nations to extend the agreement by five years without requiring ratification, and in an interview with state television last month, he said Biden’s willingness to do the same “is a serious signal for our possible future interaction.”

Alexander Zemlianichenko

AP

Traditional Russian wooden dolls known as matryoshkas, including one depicting President Trump, are displayed for sale in Moscow on March 2, 2017.

But Moscow sees downsides to a Biden presidency, including his expected re-engagement with NATO. Biden also has signaled harsher measures, perhaps in the form of more sanctions, for Russia’s interference in Western democracies. In an interview with “60 Minutes” before the election, Biden pointed to Russia as “the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our security and our alliances.”

[Trump administration rejects Putin’s offer on nuclear arms deal extension]

Russian lawmaker Dmitry Novikov told Russia’s Interfax news agency Wednesday that “it is clear that, situationally, Trump is better for us,” adding that Trump isolated America from its European allies and worsened relations with China.

“All these points of tension which Trump created for the U.S. give us certain possibilities,” Novikov said.

Another member of Russia’s State Duma, Leonid Slutsky, wrote on Facebook that “no changes for the better can be expected” regardless of which candidate proved victorious.

In Russian state media, coverage focused more on the split vote and predictions that America’s political fissures will continue to preoccupy the country and erode its global standing. Trump’s premature declaration of victory early Wednesday became a punching bag for Russian commentators.

One op-ed from pro-Kremlin newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said, “The word ‘democracy’ has been becoming less and less applicable to the United States. At the helm of the American state is the man who talks openly about his intention to retain the presidential post despite voters’ expressed will.”

But some Russians expressed admiration for a competitive presidential election, something Moscow hasn’t had under Putin for the past 20 years. Prominent Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned in late August in what he said was a state-ordered attack, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday of the still undecided result: “Now these are elections.”

Navalny congratulated Biden on Sunday, adding that he’s “looking forward to the new level of cooperation between Russia” and the United States.

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