By John Hudson
June 15, 2021
The Washington Post
BRUSSELS — Before embarking on his first meeting with Vladimir Putin as commander in chief, President Biden touted the steps he took to punish the Russian president for a range of alleged actions including interference in the 2020 election, the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the hacking of U.S. government agencies by Russian cyber spies.
“I checked it out,” Biden told reporters at a news conference in Brussels before he left for Wednesday’s summit in Geneva. “[Putin] was engaged in those activities. I did respond and made it clear I’d respond again.”
In almost immediately leveling economic sanctions against Russia and ruling out a major “reset” in relations, Biden has become the first U.S. president since the fall of the Soviet Union to enter office without seeking a new beginning with Moscow. Biden has also disagreed with some of his own aides and influential lawmakers in the Democratic Party who want a sharper break from the Trump era and a more aggressive response to Russia’s military provocations in Ukraine, cyber operations and targeting of political opponents, including Russian exiles living in Western Europe.
Inside the administration, the debate on Russia policy has been “intense” with “strong feelings on different sides,” said a U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Last month’s decision to withhold sanctions against the company and CEO behind the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline was particularly divisive. Critics of the pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Russia to Germany, view its imminent completion and operation as a major geopolitical coup for the Kremlin.
The State Department, in a position backed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, his deputy Wendy Sherman and Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, recommended a raft of U.S. sanctions intended to block the pipeline, without waivers for the company or chief executive, said officials familiar with the decision.
Biden, backed by top aides on the National Security Council, disagreed, arguing that the move would inflame relations with Germany, a key ally that views attempts to block the pipeline as a violation of its sovereignty. With the pipeline over 90 percent complete, White House officials viewed the project as a fait accompli that was not worth jeopardizing the U.S.-Germany relationship over.
The decision to back off the sanctions prompted bipartisan anger in Congress, with the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee joining Republicans to criticize the move. “This decision has created uncertainty in many corners of Europe,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.). “I am opposed to the decision.”
The tension demonstrates an emerging post-Trump dynamic. Many Democrats, still seething over the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election, want Biden to exert maximum pressure on Russia. Republicans, who privately grimaced at Trump’s glowing overtures to Putin, want the same.
Biden, who in 2011 told Putin he had no “soul” and more recently called Putin a “killer,” wants to stabilize the relationship while focusing on bigger 21st-century challenges such as China.
“We want a stable, predictable relationship,” Biden said in April after imposing new sanctions on Russia for the SolarWinds hack on various federal agencies. As he imposed the sanctions, he extended an offer to Putin for a meeting.
“Biden has employed tough language and sanctions while trying to keep open the possibility to reach an agreement with Russia,” said Angela Stent, a Russia scholar at Georgetown University.
“The challenge is there are still a significant number of Democrats who remain angry about 2016 and the speculation about Trump’s ties to Russia,” she said. “And Republicans have returned to the more traditional line of skepticism toward the Kremlin.”
Biden’s meeting with Putin in Switzerland comes amid an expanding array of disputes between the two leaders, including recent ransomware attacks launched from Russian soil, a crackdown on the Democratic opposition in Belarus, and Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Mutual diplomatic expulsions have left skeleton crews in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the Russian Embassy in Washington, and it has been months since an ambassador from either country has been at their mission.
The extent of U.S. support for Ukraine is another issue that has caused divisions on the administration’s approach to Russia.
In the spring, as Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration considered a package of lethal and nonlethal aid to Ukraine worth tens of millions of dollars under an authority given to the president by Congress.
The administration decided to table that aid package, however, after Russia began reducing the number of troops at the border in late April, said people familiar with the decision, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James E. Risch (Idaho), who recently became privy to the deliberations, said the Biden administration should have moved forward on the package at that time. “It was past time to provide more for Ukraine’s defense when Putin began amassing his troops on its border,” he said in an interview. “His drawdown should not have triggered a drawdown of U.S. support.”
U.S. officials say they have not ruled out the package, and could still advance it if Russia expands its presence at the border. They also point to a separate $150 million assistance package for Kyiv that the Pentagon announced on Friday that includes counter-artillery radars, electronic warfare equipment and counter-drone systems.
The debates on Russia policy within the Biden administration stem from different outlooks on how to produce a more productive relationship with Russia.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his deputy, Jon Finer, have emerged as a powerful duo in moving the administration toward a flexible and calibrated approach to dealing with the Kremlin, said officials familiar with the matter. The NSC’s senior director for Europe, Amanda Sloat, is seen as a careful steward of the U.S.-Germany relationship, a partnership that loomed large in the Nord Stream 2 waiver decision given the U.S. desire to enlist Berlin in a democratic coalition against China.
Despite disagreements over Nord Stream 2, a senior State Department official said there is no daylight with the White House on the path forward.
“Secretary Blinken and other senior State Department officials share the President’s conviction that Russia must not be allowed to use energy as a coercive tool against Ukraine or any other country,” the official said. “Sanctions are just one tool, however, and we are using the space the limited sanctions waivers provided to engage in diplomacy with Germany to reduce the risks the pipeline poses to European energy security.”
Some of the officials Biden tapped to join him in Switzerland are well-known and much-disliked in Moscow. Nuland, the No. 3 official at the State Department, has long infuriated the Kremlin for her support of a Western-oriented Ukraine. After Nuland left the job of State Department spokeswoman, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry that “you finally fired that Toria Nuland.” Kerry said publicly he “took great pleasure” in informing Lavrov that he had promoted her to be his top diplomat for European affairs.
Another high-profile Biden aide in Geneva, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, became a subject of obsession for Russian state TV during her tenure as State Department spokeswoman when tensions over Ukraine boiled over. She was frequently the target of sexist memes, jokes and satirical videos.
When asked how he would engage Putin in Geneva, Biden also made reference to his own career on the world stage. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said at a news conference Monday at NATO headquarters. “The last thing anyone would do is negotiate in front of the world press about how he’s going to confront an adversary.
“I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses, and if he chooses not to cooperate, then we will respond,” he said.