President Joe Biden has been quickly thrown into a high-wire balancing act with Russia as he seeks to toughen his administration’s stance against Vladimir Putin while preserving room for diplomacy in a post-Donald Trump era.
The relationship is sure to be different than the one Putin enjoyed with Trump, who was enamored of the Russian leader and sought his approval, casting doubt on Russian interference in the 2016 elections and involvement in a massive hack last year. Despite this conciliatory approach, his administration toed a tough line against Moscow, imposing sanctions on the country, Russian companies and business leaders for issues ranging from Ukraine to energy supplies and attacks on dissidents.
Unlike his immediate predecessors, Biden has not held out hope for a “reset” in relations with Russia but has instead indicated he wants to manage differences with the former Cold War foe without necessarily resolving them or improving ties. And, with a heavy domestic agenda and looming decisions needed on Iran and China, a direct confrontation with Russia is not something he seeks.
House Democrats said they still have unanswered questions after a briefing from White House officials on the report that Russia was placing bounties on US troops in Afghanistan.
When Biden first speaks with Putin, he’s expected to call Putin out for the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the weekend crackdown on his supporters, raise charges that Russian security services were behind the recent massive cybersecurity breach, and press allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Biden must be mindful of his own proposal to extend for five years the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control treaty that is due to expire in early February.
On Monday, Biden told reporters that he had not yet decided how to respond to the Navalny situation but expressed hope that the U.S. and Russia could cooperate in areas where both see benefit.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany condemned The New York Times for publishing a story about the alleged Russia bounty payments for the killing of U.S. troops. “This level of controversy and discord plays directly into the hands of Russia and unfortunately serves their interest,” she said.
“I find that we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries as a New START agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior, whether it’s Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds or reports of bounties on heads of Americans in Afghanistan,” Biden said.
Biden has already ordered the intelligence community to launch reviews of each of those issues, according to the White House, which on Friday said the U.S. proposal to extend New START would be accompanied by a reckoning on the other matters.
That approach has met with approval from some former U.S. diplomats who have dealt with Russia and are looking forward to how Biden’s team, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his nominee to be the No. 3 at the State Department, Victoria Nuland, delineate the contours of Russia policy.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testified Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that his report reveals “significant concerns” with the FBI’s applications to receive and renew warrants to surveil former Trump campaign staffer Carter Page, but determined the opening of the investigation had no political motivations.
Nuland, in particular, is reviled by Putin and his aides for her support of pro-Western politicians in Ukraine and held the Europe portfolio at the State Department in President Barack Obama’s second term. She and Sullivan are said to share opinions about how to deal with Moscow, taking a tough line on human rights and Russia’s intentions in eastern and central Europe while keeping an open channel to the Kremlin on other matters.
But their starting position is complicated, they say, particularly given Putin’s experience in dealing with Trump, who frequently undercut his own administration’s hawkish stance on Russia by privately trying to cozy up to the Russian leader.
“It’s hard but it’s doable,” said Daniel Fried, a U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the George W. Bush administration. “They’re going to have to figure this out on the fly, but it’s important to pursue New START without hesitation and push back on the Navalny arrest and other issues without guilt.”
“They need to do both and not let Putin tell them he won’t accept New START unless they drop Navalny, SolarWinds or Afghanistan,” said Fried, who is now with the Atlantic Council. “You have to push back and you can’t let Putin set the terms.”
Putin, however, may be cautious given his uncertain domestic standing in the aftermath of the pro-Navalny protests that took place in more than 100 cities over the weekend.
Biden’s team has already reacted strongly to the crackdown on Navalny supporters over the weekend in which more than 3,700 people were arrested at the demonstrations across Russia, including more than 1,400 in Moscow.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s fiercest critic, was arrested Jan. 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent nearly five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny the accusations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and State Department spokesman Ned Price have urged the immediate and unconditional release of Navalny, as well as those who were detained in the crackdown.