Obama has also refused to provide Ukraine with deadly military assistance to help it defend against Russian aggression, fearing it could lead to an escalation in the fighting. Moscow viewed this hesitation as setting clear limits on how far the United States could travel. Meanwhile, the communication from Secretary of State John Kerry, who has met regularly with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Iran and other issues, denied Obama’s claim that he isolated Russia and reduced the impact of sanctions.
President Donald Trump has approved lethal aid to Ukraine, proving concerns about the escalation unfounded. The Trump administration has increased its military presence in the region, boosted US exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe, and continued to impose sanctions.
These tougher measures, however, were completely undermined by Trump’s rhetoric about Putin and his 2018 meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki, where he notoriously said he believed Putin’s claims of electoral interference in relation to him. to those of the US intelligence community. More generally, Trump’s concern for Putin undermines the effectiveness of otherwise relatively strong actions, creating an inconsistent approach.
Biden took a harsher approach during his campaign and upon taking office, agreeing that Putin is a “killer” and imposing two rounds of sanctions in March and April for various abuses. Unfortunately, these sanctions repeated the usual pattern of not targeting those closest to Putin. A list of 35 potential targets carefully curated by associates of opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been largely ignored by the administration.
Since then, however, the president seems to have softened his approach. Focused on China and, more recently, Afghanistan, the Biden administration does not want to be distracted by a confrontation with Putin. Some also fear that hardening himself with Putin could push him to get closer to Xi Jinping. Other members of the administration fear that continued sanctions and an uncompromising approach will hamper hopes for cooperation on climate change and arms control. Those concerns likely led Biden in April to invite Putin to a summit.
Putin’s behavior, meanwhile, only got worse. Days after the June summit in Geneva, he absurdly accused the United States of orchestrating the 2014 ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. This was followed by a long rant posted on the Kremlin website claiming that Ukraine and Russia are “one nation.” Putin has drawn a “red line” on Ukraine’s membership in NATO and continues to maintain a threatening troop presence along the border. He supported Lukashenko after the Belarusian dictator engaged in air piracy. Russian authorities have added Bard College to their list of “undesirable organizations” and continue to persecute opposition activists and journalists. And the “Havana Syndrome” attacks continue to plague US diplomats and intelligence officials; US officials increasingly suspect a Russian role in these incidents.
The administration might think it can ignore Russia to focus on China or fear that a harsher line on Moscow endangers cooperation on arms control, climate change, Iran, or Iran. Afghanistan. But this argument, which resembles those advanced by the last three administrations, exaggerates the possibilities of cooperation with a regime with which we have little in common. Additionally, Putin’s track record of non-compliance – the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Georgia, the 2015 Minsk agreement regarding Ukraine, the arms control treaties and human rights commitments – show that it does not keep its word anyway. Even though the administration is driven by the idea of cooperation, the United States should not look away when Russia engages in gross human rights violations or invades or threatens other countries.
In light of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration may want to seek Russian help there – or at least not escalate tensions with Moscow in the wake of the withdrawal. And yet, Putin reportedly objected to the possibility of US bases in Central Asia during his summit with Biden. Russian authorities engaged extensively with the Taliban (while also evacuating hundreds of Russians from the country).
Kerry, now Biden’s special envoy for climate change, has long been the more optimistic side about cooperation with Russia. He recently said he believed there was “space” for Russia and the United States “to collaborate” on climate change, and perhaps “open up better opportunities on other issues,” hinting at easing sanctions in exchange for climate cooperation. Yet historical records show that these hopes are just that – hopes. Putin and Lavrov, Kerry’s frequent interlocutor, love to portray the prospect of cooperation to ease sanctions without intending to live up to their end of the deal. Meanwhile, the pledge encourages Putin to continue climbing the ranks until he is toppled.
Like previous administrations, the Biden team might fear that harsher responses could lead to an escalation that could spiral out of control. At the same time, since 2006, we see that the lack of response to concerns about escalation may inadvertently serve as a green light for Putin to continue his destabilizing behavior.
Indeed, Biden himself has recently appeared to acknowledge that the status quo risks the very escalation we seek to prevent. During a visit to the National Intelligence Council in July, Biden warned that cyber attacks could lead to a more serious crisis: “I think it’s more likely that we’ll end up – well, if we end up in a war, war with great power. It will be the consequence of a large-scale cyber breach. “
To be clear, I am not saying that we should sever all contact with Russia. Biden demonstrated during his first week in office that it is possible to come to an agreement with Putin on the extension of the new START treaty. But this is the exception to the rule.
How a regime treats its people is often indicative of how it will behave in foreign policy. If Putin does not respect the human rights of his own people, we should not be surprised that he disregards the human rights of Georgians, Ukrainians, Belarusians or even Syrians. We should not be shocked either when he flouts the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Instead of predictability and stability, we’ll see the exact opposite.
Biden is expected to return to the tougher stance he started his presidency with. The United States should go after Putin’s ill-gotten gains and those around him, making them largely inaccessible. We also need to clean our own house and stop importing ill-gotten Russian money. Biden bragged in Geneva about America’s ability to respond to cyber attacks. Perhaps Putin needs to suffer a blackout in the region outside of Moscow where he resides or in his $ 1.3 billion palace on the Black Sea.
We don’t want a confrontation with Russia, but at some point failing to push back on Putin’s abuses may be precisely that. Neither this administration nor its three predecessors have faced Putin’s aggression in a sustained and consistent manner, in particular by gradually increasing sanctions and targeting Putin’s inner circle, and perhaps even Putin himself. Instead, each president has, in different ways, over-prioritized hopes of cooperation with the Kremlin to the detriment of Russia’s own people, its neighbors, and the national security interests of the United States.
The results are not good: the repression of human rights is the worst since the breakup of the USSR; Russia’s neighbors face a constant threat, if not outright attack; Russian agents engage in hacks and ransomware attacks and interfere with our elections; and Putin supports like-minded leaders around the world in conflict with American interests. In the meantime, there is little to show in terms of cooperation.
It is time to take off the gloves and attack the strengths of Putin and those around him. It is time to back up our warnings with action. I wish we had done it years ago.