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Is Biden Going Soft on Putin?

The administration is signaling it wants to reach an understanding with Moscow. Its predecessors made the same mistake.
May 24, 2021
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(Photo by Matt Dunham - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

After taking an appropriately hard line toward the Putin regime in its early months, the Biden administration seems to be going wobbly. Early on, the administration coupled sanctions on Russian officials for the poisoning and arrest of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the SolarWinds hack, and interference in U.S. elections with rhetoric indicating the United States would oppose Russia’s malign influence around the globe. More recently, however, it waived sanctionsover the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline and is preparing for a summit between President Biden and President Vladimir Putin—two concessions that Putin has not earned and that do not advance American interests.

The administration’s decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company building the pipeline, and Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi agent and ally of Putin who serves as the company’s chief executive, met opposition on Capitol Hill from both Republicans and Democrats. It was welcomed in Berlin, which embraces the pipeline as a source of affordable energy—and also in Moscow, for which the pipeline is a geopolitical weapon. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov described the recission of sanctions as a “positive signal.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov went so far as to suggest that the waivers could provide a “chance for a gradual transition toward the normalization of our bilateral ties.”

Ryabkov’s comment raises a key question: Should the United States be pursuing “normalization” with an immensely corrupt, authoritarian regime that arrests, tortures, and kills its domestic opponents, supports like-minded authoritarian leaders elsewhere, interferes in our elections, and hacks into our networks? Do we want normalized ties with a leader who Biden rightly agreed is a “killer”?

Last week, on the margins of a meeting of the Arctic Council in Reykjavik, Iceland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov standing with him, declared that the Biden administration seeks a “predictable, stable relationship with Russia. We think that’s good for our people, good for the Russian people, and, indeed, good for the world.”

Lavrov responded by saying, “We are prepared to discuss all issues on the table with the understanding that our discussions will be honest, factual, and with mutual respect.”

What would a predictable relationship with the Putin regime look like? And how much respect do Putin, Lavrov and other Russian officials deserve?

As Russia approaches parliamentary “elections” this fall, the Kremlin is cracking down on critics, opponents, and journalists more than any time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Having survived being poisoned by Putin’s henchmen, Navalny was welcomed home from his convalescence in Germany by being arrested upon his return to Moscow . His life hangs in the balance in a Russian prison, while those who work with him and his foundation are being arrested and driven out of the country; his anti-corruption foundation has been classified “extremist” and shut down. The human rights outlook in Russia is awful and getting worse.

Putin’s threatening behavior toward Russia’s neighbors is similarly likely to worsen. Russia maintains a major military presence along its border with Ukraine and in illegally occupied Crimea, while it limits navigation in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. It continues to occupy 20 percent of Georgian territory and provides critical support to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka. Moldova’s upcoming parliamentary elections will almost certainly be subject to Russian interference, as president Maia Sandu, a Western-oriented reformer, struggles to free her country from corruption and oligarchic control.

Farther afield, Putin’s forces continue to sustain Syria’s murderous Assad regime and engage in alleged war crimes through military attacks on civilians. Russian mercenaries are actively engaged in the civil war in Libya and stirring up trouble sub-Saharan Africa, especially the Central African Republic. Putin extends assistance to Venezuela’s Maduro regime while expanding Russia’s disinformation campaign through Spanish-language RT.

Russian hacking of American hospitals, pipelines, elections and government agencies shows no signs of slowing. The Biden administration imposed sanctions for the SolarWinds hack and interference in the 2020 election but downplayed any Kremlin role in the recent Colonial Pipeline hack. Like the Trump administration, the Biden administration seems to be hesitating about sanctioning Russian actors for reported bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan. While confidence in the bounty scheme reports appears to be subject to debate within the intelligence community, such hesitation will be read by Moscow as weakness.

Russian authorities raided the Moscow offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on May 14 as part of a pressure campaign, including fines of more than $2 million and harassing and threatening local staff and free-lancers, that seems designed to force the broadcaster to relocate out of Russia. While Blinken raised this issue with Lavrov, there has been insufficient pushback on such outrageous behavior. Too little has also been done to help the two Americans being held in Russia prisons—Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.

In response to a pattern of abuse and aggression evil matched by few others in the world, Biden invited Putin to a summit next month. But Putin has yet to accept Biden’s proposal. That creates the impression that the United States needs a better relationship with Russia more than Russia needs one with us. The Obama-Biden administration’s “reset” policy created the same impression in 2009, and it proved to be one of the administration’s greatest errors in dealing with Russia.

Blinken’s bromide that what’s good for the Russian people is good for our people echoed another mistake from the “reset” days—thinking that Putin would appreciate win-win approaches to problems. Putin doesn’t think that way; he approaches relations in zero-sum terms. In a meeting with government officials on Thursday, Putin said, “Everyone wants to bite us or bite something off us, but those who would like to do so should know that we would knock their teeth out so that they couldn’t bite. The development of our military is the guarantee of that.” That doesn’t sound like a leader interested in win-win solutions.

While China under Xi Jinping may pose a bigger and more long-term strategic challenge to the United States, Putin poses a more urgent, immediate threat. Russia under Putin cheats on arms control accords and tramples on human rights commitments it has made as member of the Council of Europe and OSCE. His word on climate change pledges is meaningless.

Putin does not deserve our respect. He has proven to be dishonest and untrustworthy, and is not someone we can do business with. Strong pushback can limit the damage he can do, but recently the Biden administration has been showing him weakness. At a minimum, Biden had better be ready to answer in the affirmative when the inevitable question arises: “Do you still think Putin is a killer?” Any other answer will appear to absolve Putin of responsibility for the destruction he has wrought.

No doubt some in the administration think that, if only the Russian-American relationship could be stabilized, more attention and resources could be focused on other challenges, like China. But Putin isn’t interested in stability, and neither Biden nor anyone else can change that—not with summits, not with waivers for sanctions, and not with any amount of rhetoric about mutual benefit and cooperation. To imagine otherwise would be to repeat past mistakes.

David J. Kramer

David J. Kramer served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration and is Director of European and Eurasian Studies and Senior Fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.