Vladimir Putin would like a word. All talks in Washington these days are about China or our crazy dysfunctional policies or the pandemic and its consequences. Putin seems determined to put Russia back on the agenda as well. As a casual remark by President Joe BidenIn a recent interview, Russia’s strongman agreed that Putin was a “murderer” and sent an alarming buildup of troops and arms to the front with Ukraine – an escalation that marked the renewal of a hot war in Europe with America and Russia threatened on opposite sides. In Russia, Putin signed a law this week that will allow him to be a leader for life – or at least until 2036, when he will be eighty-three years old. Putin’s leading political rival, incarcerated dissident Alexey Navalny, is now on hunger strike. To suffer A health crisis so severe that his doctors are warning that he could die if Putin doesn’t order his inmates to slack off. Navalny supporters are asking the Biden administration to intervene, and on Thursday I spoke to Vladimir Milov, an adviser to Navalny who is pushing the new White House team for a tougher response to the dissident’s “significantly deteriorated” condition. Milov told me that sanctions imposed by Biden last month following Navalny’s imprisonment “had essentially no consequence” and that new measures to punish Putin and his inner circle of oligarchs are a “necessary second step”.
In Washington, kremlinologists believe that these provocative actions are a deliberate effort by Putin to test America’s new president. We know what Donald Trump would do in this situation: nothing. That is exactly what he did with Putin’s agents poisoned Navalny last year with the banned chemical agent Novichok and carried out the sweeping SolarWinds Hack in the United States. In no other area of foreign policy is the rhetorical contrast between the last US president, who was open to Putin, and the current one, who despises him, more significant. But will Biden prove to be different in his actions? On Thursday, I spoke to a senior administrative official who promised an unspecified “series of other measures” against Russia for its crimes in 2020. confirmed that further sanctions related to Navalny are being considered; and warned of “significant costs and consequences” if Russia actually takes new military measures against Ukraine.
But I have no question that the Biden team smells a trap. The last thing they want is another four years of “Russia, Russia, Russia”, endless rounds of new sanctions and coverage on the cable news of the latest sniper between Biden and the tough guy in the Kremlin. The truth is that even after two consecutive US elections on behalf of Trump, Russia has barely been high on the new Biden administration’s list of priorities. For the first seventy-five days, Biden’s presidency was understandably focused on domestic crises – from the pandemic and the economy to gun violence and racial billing. On geopolitics, Biden senior advisors have stated that fighting China is a top priority – and the US’s biggest challenge of this century.
In practical terms, the government’s international achievements have been the most pressing project to date: undoing what Trump has done. Just this week, the State Department announced it was returning hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Palestine that Trump cut off. In Vienna, US and Iranian diplomats have gathered to work out the terms under which the United States can resume the nuclear deal that Trump left in 2018, World Health Organization, which Trump abandoned for dealing with the coronavirus; and began to revive alliances and international organizations that were weakened by Trump’s opposition.
Less tangible, but perhaps just as significant, the new administration has radically changed the surround sound of American diplomacy. “Swagger” was the Trump team’s mantra, and the former president praised opponents and destroyed allies for four years. The Biden approach can best be summed up for me by an exchange with former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now Biden’s special envoy on climate. On the day in February that the US officially acceded to the Paris Agreement, I interviewed Kerry at an event in Washington hosted by the Italian Ambassador. When, after four years of American self-segregation, I asked what Kerry wanted from his European colleagues, he replied, “Forgiveness.” The return to the agreement, he added, “will not be done in words – it has to be done in action. We cannot talk ourselves back into legitimacy. “
But while Biden’s new foreign policy team – led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken – two longtime Biden advisors to the Obama administration were busy figuring out how to re-legitimize America in the EU, Putin has once again proven himself adroit, To put yourself at the center of Washington’s attention. I’ve spoken to several leading Russia experts, and they all agreed that Putin’s provocations are both worrying and, at least in part, designed to test Biden’s resolve. Whether or not Putin likes to be called a murderer, he certainly likes being ignored even less. After more than two decades in power, he is also an accomplished opponent of the United States. Biden is his fifth American president, and Putin has challenged everyone at one point or another. “The Russians want the United States to be a top priority,” said Alina Polyakova, a Russian scientist who heads the Center for European Policy Analysis. “It is a wish to make yourself known at a time when you are not noticed.” And also a chance to tweak Biden, she added, “to make it clear that it doesn’t matter who the US president is – the US is still rash, not much action behind those words.”
No matter how much drama Putin is producing – and his recent actions make me think of Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans’ attention-grabbing nuclear tests – it’s hard to imagine a major bid against Russia that goes beyond further sanctions. harsher words and a much more coordinated approach with European allies. When Russia’s military moves became apparent in Ukraine last week, it did not go unnoticed that the recoil came in a single, choreographed day, both by high-ranking US officials – who called all of their Kremlin counterparts to protest – and by Europeans Leaders. On Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Ted Cruz has held Biden candidates for key positions in hopes of forcing the government to act more aggressively to stop Russia building the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline to Germany. Cruz is currently blocking the nomination of Wendy Sherman as Deputy State Department on the matter. But the pipeline is more than ninety percent complete, and the Biden team doesn’t seem inclined to blow up relations with Germany over a project that is likely to be completed anyway.
My conversation with the senior government official indicated that the Biden team has no desire to be consumed by the familiar cycles of Russian crimes of recent years, followed by American reactions. When I asked how the government sees Russia, the official called it “a serious and significant threat to the United States that needs to be managed in a way that will put us on a path of stability”. This does not sound like a government poised to escalate further after the promised retaliatory measures for Russia’s provocations in 2020. “We want to carry out this answer. We want to stand up and defend American interests and sovereignty, and we will. And then we want to convey a clear view that it is in the interests of the United States to find a way to deal with the challenges we have with Russia without it overtaking or overwhelming the rest of our agenda, ”he said Officer.
But here, too, Putin has a voice. After all, they are Obama veterans, and they still remember well when their policy of “resigning” against Putin was blown up when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. “It’s not like we sit around and say, ‘Oh, Russia, who cares? Let’s just try to put it aside, ”said the officer. “Vladimir Putin made it clear, and one lesson we have learned from the Obama administration is: don’t discount Russia’s ability to cause serious disruption and its direct attack on American core interests.” The Biden team may not want to be “caught”, but an actual Russian attack in eastern Ukraine would be a completely different matter.
New administrations in Washington are always challenged to act now, both in the pressing crises of the moment and in the inherited disasters of their predecessors. Experienced world leaders have long since learned to understand and play the Washington clock – whether by putting pressure on a new administration early, as Putin is doing, or planning invasions late in a Lame Duck presidency . (See Putin’s war in Georgia in the summer of 2008 and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s war in the Gaza Strip in early 2009.) The Biden team is dealing with Putin’s provocations at a time when there are virtually no confirmed Foreign Ministry officials other than the Secretary of State himself , no senior director for Russia on the National Security Council and no Biden-appointed deputy secretary of state overseeing the region.
But I keep coming back to something Milov, Navalny’s advisor, said. What Biden and other leaders are currently lacking in Russia is less of a sanctions list hitting the right Putin allies or a round of tough phone calls. It’s a strategy for a changing world. Just like in China, the old American carrot and whip approach, which has more or less endured since the end of the Cold War, no longer works. Putin has declared himself a “great enemy”, said Milov, and should finally be treated as such. “The West really lacks a coherent approach to Russia right now,” he argued. Violations by Putin’s administration are still treated as one-off: the detention of a dissident, the hacking of US government agencies, electoral disruption or the use of banned chemical weapons, or armed assault against his neighbors. At the moment the crisis is Navalny and Ukraine. Tomorrow it will probably be different. “We’ll keep coming back to the question of what we’re going to do next time against Russia’s measures,” said Milov. It could finally be the moment, said Milov, to move towards “comprehensive containment.”
The Biden administration is not there yet. And even if it were, her world is on fire at home and abroad. Will Putin’s recent crimes force their way to the top of Biden’s priority list? Milov understands the chances are slim. “The Biden Administration has so much to fix,” he admitted. Then he added with a laugh, “If we were the only problem in the room. . . . ”