Biden’s get-tough Russia plan faces early diplomacy test
President Biden’s desire to forcefully confront an increasingly adversarial Russia is being tempered by the immediate need to cooperate with Moscow on a variety of shared interests.
Biden is seeking a five-year extension of the nuclear arms treaty known as New START that’s set to expire the first week of February and is seen by arms control experts as key to ensuring international security.
Meanwhile, intelligence officials are launching a series of reviews into what the Biden administration called “reckless and adversarial actions” that have carried over from the Trump era.
Those areas of concern include the unprecedented SolarWinds hack into federal agencies and private U.S. companies last year and this month’s arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny following his recovery from a poisoning allegedly carried out by Russian security services. Officials are also reviewing reports of the Kremlin placing bounties on U.S. service members in Afghanistan.
“I find that we can both operate in the mutual self interest of our countries … and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior,” President Biden told reporters on Monday.
Biden reiterated that he is waiting for the intelligence community’s assessment of Moscow’s malign activity before initiating a response but said he would “not hesitate to raise those issues with the Russians.”
Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the Obama administration, welcomed Biden’s approach, characterizing it as an effort to deal with Russia clearly and directly unlike former President Trump, who was criticized for his overtures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. She said Biden is capable of balancing cooperation with confrontation in his dealings with Putin.
“We can make progress with Russia if we deal directly and firmly, which the Trump administration didn’t try to do,” Farkas said.
Yet pressure is building for Biden to take quick action against Moscow, in particular for arresting Navalny, and completing an assessment of the initial poisoning and how Putin and Russia’s internal security services, the FSB, fit in.
“We urge your Administration to conduct this investigation, submit your findings to Congress, and make a determination without delay,” bipartisan House lawmakers wrote in a letter to Biden on Friday.
“If your investigation confirms that the Putin regime was behind this brazen attack – as the overwhelming evidence presented by our allies and independent researchers suggests – then it must be held accountable,” the lawmakers continued.
Over the weekend, the State Department demanded Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional release” and rebuked Russia’s crackdown on sweeping protests that have taken place in favor of the opposition leader. The State Department also called for the release of over 3,000 demonstrators who have been arrested.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that the intelligence community’s assessment of a range of Russian activities would be prioritized, but she did not offer a timeline or information about retaliatory actions that are under consideration.
Authorities legislated by Congress provide the administration with key tools for responding, including the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctions on Russian officials engaged in human rights abuses against individuals working to expose corruption.
There’s also the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, Antony Blinken, signaled during his confirmation hearing last week that the administration’s decision to pursue action against Russia would not be taken lightly.
While Biden believes the U.S. must impose “costs and sustained consequences” on Russia, Blinken said, each bad activity will “merit a deep conversation” between the administration and Congress.
Former officials said the Biden administration may consider proportionate actions in cyberspace to respond to the SolarWinds hack, though officials would likely be wary of potential escalation.
Farkas, the former Obama administration official, said Biden could also consider restricting the issuance of new sovereign debt to Russian state-run entities.
“We need to be less risk averse than we have been in the past,” she said. “Right now, the Putin regime is at a weak point.”
Biden’s administration will also need to navigate Moscow’s detention of three Americans, including Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison last year on espionage charges. Whelan maintains he was framed, and U.S officials have called the charges politically motivated.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said the family has not had any communications with the Biden administration but welcomed Blinken’s nomination as secretary of State as well as the decision by Biden not to replace the U.S. ambassador to Russia and the special envoy for hostage affairs from the Trump administration.
Those decisions “give us confidence that Paul’s case will be handled by a government with deep expertise on Russia,” David Whelan said.
The two other detained Americans are Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced in July to nine years in prison for assaulting a police officer — allegations the U.S. contests — and investor Michael Calvey, who is under limited house arrest in Russia awaiting trial on embezzlement charges that the U.S. has criticized.
The other congressional pressure facing Biden concerns Russia’s construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that critics warn will give Moscow leverage over Europe.
Blinken, in his remarks to Congress, said Biden is committed to preventing the pipeline’s completion but is prioritizing coordination with European allies over the imposition of unilateral sanctions.
That means Biden would have to convince Germany to abandon its support of the project at a time when he is also trying to repair the relationship between Washington and Berlin after it fractured under Trump.
“In an ideal world, we will engage very quickly with our partners and allies in Europe, and I think we will try to seek to convince them to stop this,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, adding that sanctions remain on the table.
Biden spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday and “conveyed his desire to deepen relations between our countries,” according to the White House, which also said the two leaders discussed Russia, Ukraine and the NATO alliance.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan has held calls with his counterparts in the United Kingdom, France and Germany and addressed shared concerns related to Russia, among other issues.
Psaki on Monday would not say whether Biden is expected to speak with Putin but indicated generally that more calls were planned with foreign leaders.
Still, the U.S. will seek Russia’s cooperation to address issues like climate change and arms control.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Monday that Russian and U.S. officials have started talks on New START and expressed optimism at working with the Biden administration.
Angela Stent, a Georgetown University government professor and Russia expert, said it’s unlikely for relations between the two countries to warm. Instead, she said, they will likely carry out a cold peace to achieve strategic gains on both sides.
“I think the Biden people have said from the beginning that they don’t want a reset with Russia because that would be illusionary and we should just be dealing with Russia on issues that are in our interests,” Stent said.
“On those issues it’s important to sit down with Russia but there is no expectation that the relationship is going to get warmer.”