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Biden and Putin — US-Russia relations after Trump

Biden and Putin — US-Russia relations after Trump
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In Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinQueen's cousin and associate accused of 'secretly trading on their links' to Putin, monarchy for profit Putin warns of resurgence in Nazi beliefs on anniversary of WWII's end Biden 'confident' meeting with Putin will take place soon MORE, the Biden administration faces the most aggressive anti-American Russian regime since Nikita Khrushchev. An effective response will require the new U.S. president and his national security team to confront Putin’s ongoing anti-Western strategy — while looking for areas to engage Russia on areas of common interest.

The Biden administration has two Putin-related problems to urgently address: 1) the successful Russian cyber penetration of the data in U.S. institutions and infrastructure and 2) the Russian attack — both covert and open — on Western democracy and America’s relationship with critical democratic allies during the Trump presidency.

The recently exposed Russian cyber-intelligence operations to penetrate U.S. Government agencies is no surprise in a conventional and competitive international intelligence environment. What is shocking is its success. The Russian cyber penetration was a gigantic failure of U.S. cybersecurity. A response requires a major security investment and a credible deterrent with unacceptable consequences for Putin in the event of an attack on institutions or infrastructure.

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Intelligence collection is one thing. A Russian direct attack on American democracy is another.

Since 2016, Putin used internet disinformation to promote Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders: Reinstating SALT deduction 'sends a terrible, terrible message' GOP braces for wild week with momentous vote One quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors MORE for President, to undermine and corrupt the principles of democracy and to spread division throughout Western democracies.

It worked for four years. It seemed like almost everything Trump and company did internationally appeared somehow to support Putin’s agenda. Trump trashed the U.S. relationships with democratic allies in Europe, belittled NATO, and diminished American influence around the world and created power vacuums that Putin tried to fill.

U.S. sanctions against Russia during the Trump administration were little more than irritants to Putin — and obviously did nothing to cause the covert Russian attacks to stop. Even with the election of Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders: Reinstating SALT deduction 'sends a terrible, terrible message' GOP braces for wild week with momentous vote Shining a light on COINTELPRO's dangerous legacy MORE, Putin must feel that the damage done to U.S. confidence and international influence during the Trump term was worth it.

Putin’s assault on Western democracy demands an urgent and forceful American and allied response once Biden is in office.

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Putin has outlasted four U.S. administrations. Each U.S. president has tried to reach some level of cooperation with a Russian dictator who had no interest in an accommodation with the nation that he plays as a convenient threat in his nationalist agenda to retain power in the Kremlin.

No one should again look into Putin’s eyes to try to see his soul. Let’s put away the “reset button,” and stop accepting Putin’s lies and propaganda over the judgements of the American intelligence and counterintelligence community sworn to defend the nation, as Trump did in Helsinki.

Putin is incorrigible — a brutal dictator who seems to prefer to poison his political opponents over other options and who will do whatever it takes to stay in power. His regime is corrupt to the core, and he has successfully stifled the political opposition, the press, and the rule of law in Russia.

The U.S. should create specifically targeted response options to personalize responsibility for the attacks on American democracy.

No covert program to undermine the Putin regime in Russia as the Russians conducted in the U.S. is necessary and might be counterproductive. Instead, Washington should flood Russia with the truth — accurate public information on the economic holdings, corruption and other shady actions by Putin and his oligarch supporters, family, and closest associates in government.

An active program to hold Putin and his critical associates personally responsible for the attacks would openly and directly sanction individuals — including Putin — who were involved in the attacks on U.S. democracy to a degree that future attacks would not be worth the personal cost.

In my experience, dictators, their essential oligarch supporters, and families cannot tolerate penalties that focus on their personal corruption, their wealth and assets and their travel freedom. Washington should pursue indictments of close Putin cronies when possible. Financial sanctions should be expanded on the personal and business assets of oligarchs. Business and personal accounts should be frozen in financial institutions. Visas that allow them to travel internationally can be blocked.

A separate and critical U.S domestic component of a strategy to prevent foreign interference in American democracy is to clean up our own house on foreign influence in U.S. elections. Laws to prevent foreign influence and corruption of U.S. elections must be tightened. The promotion and acceptance of all forms of foreign assistance in elections should be absolutely prohibited by law.

Further, all potential candidates for high national office should undergo a background security investigation equivalent to those undergone for government employees — with access to sensitive material — before being placed on any ballot.

While Putin and company must be held accountable for their attacks during the Trump administration, we have important international business to conduct with Russia even as we create a political deterrent to interference in U.S. and allied domestic politics.

Putin has been a master of exploiting Russian nationalism and Russia’s historic fear of the West for his personal political power. But Russia is also a great country with a vigorous population, an incredible culture and history and many common interests with the U.S. and Europe.

I witnessed firsthand during the breakup of Yugoslavia that we can cooperate effectively with Russia when they choose to do so.

The U.S. policy toward Putin is not about Russia or its people. The problem is the attitude of the current Russian leadership. It is Vladimir Putin who led Russia away from post-Soviet democracy in favor of extreme nationalism and authoritarian rule. It is not the West’s fault that current relations with Russia are unacceptable. Responsibility lies with Putin, who chose confrontation with the U.S. and Western democracies rather than cooperation.

For now, the new U.S. administration must confront Putin’s hostility. But hopefully, after addressing their issues, the West and Russia can return to a less confrontational, cooperative approach in their relationship.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."