Hostility rises between Biden, Putin
President Biden is not holding back in confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him a killer and promising tough action against a range of attacks by the Kremlin on the U.S.
Biden is warning of plans to retaliate against Russia in response to the intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin authorized an influence operation aimed at undermining Biden’s candidacy in the 2020 election.
The administration has strived to forcefully call Russia out for bad behavior from the highest levels of government, a break with former President Trump, who regularly spoke warmly of Putin and cast doubt on Russia’s culpability in election interference and other malign actions.
But the Biden administration also wants to work with Russia in areas of mutual concern and the developments this week could complicate those efforts, given the angry reaction that the developments have sparked from Moscow.
Putin on Thursday responded to Biden calling him a killer by saying it takes one to know one.
The White House made it clear Thursday that Biden did not regret his comments but noted that the U.S was still hopeful of the possibility to work with Russia on areas of mutual interest.
“President Biden and President Putin certainly have different perspectives on their respective countries and how to approach engagement in the world, but where they agree is that we should continue to look for ways to work together,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, mentioning cooperation on extending the New START treaty with Russia and the fact that Russia was an original party to the Iran nuclear deal.
“We are confident that we can continue to look for ways where there is a mutual national interest, but the president is not going to hold back, clearly, when he has concerns whether it is with words or actions,” Psaki said.
Daniel Fried, an Atlantic Council fellow and former top U.S. diplomat, said that, while he could have worded it differently, what Biden said was truthful, noting opposition figures like Alexei Navalny who have been targeted and Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
“I have little sympathy for the Russian expressions of feigned outrage and a great deal of sympathy for President Biden who is making a point, and he is saying let’s call things by their name,” Fried said.
Biden’s approach is seen in part as an effort to draw a sharp contrast with his predecessor, who did not forcefully push back on Russia for interfering in U.S. elections.
“It means the tenor of the relations has changed. It means that we’re not talking nice about Putin and the Kremlin anymore and were not papering over what they’re doing,” said Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under former President Obama.
“The Russians now will have to decide whether they want the tenor and the actual relationship to improve because they would have to stop all the things they are doing,” Farkas added.
Biden said in an ABC News interview Wednesday that Putin would “pay a price” for meddling in the 2020 election, referencing the conclusion of a declassified intelligence report that Putin had authorized an influence operation aimed at hurting Biden’s candidacy and aiding Trump.
And the president has expanded sanctions against Moscow for allegedly using a banned chemical weapon to poison Navalny, the prominent Russian opposition figure currently imprisoned. The administration has blocked exports of certain high-tech components and blacklisted Kremlin officials and business entities involved in biological agent production.
In the ABC interview, Biden further sharpened his rhetoric against Russia by responding in the affirmative when asked if Putin is a “killer.”
Shortly thereafter, Russia recalled its ambassador to the U.S. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Biden’s comments were “very bad statements” and indicated that he “definitely does not want to improve relations” between the U.S. and Russia.
Simon Miles, a professor with Duke University and an expert on Russia and the Soviet Union, called the Kremlin’s decision to recall the Russian ambassador “a significant move” and something that hasn’t happened for over two decades.
Angela Stent, a Georgetown University government professor and Russia expert, predicted that the developments would have a “dampening effect” on U.S.-Russia relations in the near term. Still, she anticipated that both sides could still work together on areas like climate change and nuclear arms control even when the larger relationship is adversarial, noting that both countries found ways to work with one another during the Cold War.
“I think there will still be areas where they probably work together,” Stent said. “But I think they’ll be limited and they’ll be very compartmentalized and I think the overall atmosphere is still going to probably be very tense.”
Soon, the U.S. is expected to retaliate for Russian election interference as well as Moscow’s involvement in the SolarWinds hack. Psaki did not give a precise timeline or details on the response on Thursday but suggested it would be “weeks not months.”
“Some of the responses may be seen, some may be unseen, and of course the president reserves the right to respond in a manner and time of his choosing,” Psaki said. “He did make clear that the Russian government will pay a price.”
The administration is also under pressure from Republicans to impose more sanctions on Russia over its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that transits the Baltic sea to Germany, believed to be 90 percent to 95 percent complete.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday issued a statement warning that any entities involved in laying the pipeline are at risk of sanctions, reiterating the administration’s opposition to the project as a move by Russia “to divide Europe and weaken European energy security,” but announced no new punitive measures.
So far only the Russian pipe-laying ship Fortuna is under U.S. sanctions, imposed by the former Trump administration on their last day in office.
Russia’s ongoing occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is also an area of confrontation for the Biden administration, which issued a joint statement on Thursday with Group of 7 member countries condemning the “illegitimate and illegal annexation” on the seventh anniversary of Moscow’s seizure of the Ukraine territory.
Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia and four-decade veteran of the State Department, said the current tensions between Moscow and Washington are a “downgrade” in the relationship. The ongoing policy of sanctions are not pleasant for the Russians, he said, but is unlikely to change their behavior.
“Russians have for many, many years, been very stalwart in the face of this kind of pressure and are unlikely, in the light of what we see going on now, to move their policies in any serious way.”
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, echoed that sanctions alone aren’t effective, but send an important signal of unacceptable behavior. They are also likely to take on more weight with a comprehensive strategy being developed by the Biden administration and in coordination with allies.
“The Trump administration, the sanctions were just a tool that were used in and of themselves and they weren’t embedded in any real policy that was directed toward Russia,” she said.
“What I think we’ll see with the Biden administration is that the sanctions will be a tool that sits in a more coherent approach to Russia.”
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