Washington (AFP) – President Joe Biden has quickly been thrown into a high-profile balancing act with Russia as he seeks to harden his administration’s stance against Vladimir Putin while preserving space for diplomacy in the post-Donald Trump era.
The relationship will certainly be different from the one that Putin enjoyed with Trump, who was fascinated by the Russian leader and sought his approval, casting doubt on Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and participating in a massive breakthrough last year. Despite this conciliatory approach, his administration has taken a hard line against Moscow, imposing sanctions on the country, Russian companies and business leaders over issues ranging from Ukraine to energy supplies and attacks on dissidents.
Unlike his immediate predecessors, Biden did not hope to “reset” relations with Russia, but indicated instead that he wanted to manage differences with the former Cold War enemy without necessarily resolving them or improving relations. With a heavy domestic agenda and imminent decisions needed on Iran and China, direct confrontation with Russia is not something to strive for.
When Biden first spoke with Putin, he was expected to demand the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the weekend crackdown on his supporters, stirring accusations that Russian security services were behind the recent massive breach of cybersecurity, and press allegations that Russia had offered to give the Taliban to kill American forces in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Biden should bear in mind his proposal to extend the remaining five-year US-Russian 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 Navalny’s situation, but said he hoped the United States and Russia would cooperate in areas that both saw benefit.
“I find we are able to work for the mutual self-interest of our countries with a New START agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior, be it in Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds or reports on bonuses on the heads,” Biden said.
Biden has already ordered the intelligence community to initiate reviews on each of these issues, according to the White House, which said Friday that the US proposal to extend New START would be accompanied by a calculation on other matters.
This approach has been met with approval from some former US diplomats who have dealt with Russia and are looking forward to how the Biden team, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and State Department No. 3 candidate, Victoria Nuland, will shape Russia’s policy.
Nuland, in particular, was cursed by Putin and his aides for her support of pro-Western politicians in Ukraine, and she held the Europe portfolio in the State Department in President Barack Obama’s second term. She and Sullivan are said to exchange views on how to deal with Moscow, taking a tough stance on human rights and Russia’s intentions in eastern and central Europe while maintaining an open channel with the Kremlin on other matters.
But their initial stance is complicated, they say, especially given Putin’s experience with Trump, who has often undermined his administration’s hard-line stance toward Russia by particularly trying to get closer to the Russian leader.
“It’s difficult, but it’s possible,” said Daniel Fried, the US ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the George W. Bush administration. “They will have to find out quickly, but it is important to follow New Start without hesitation and respond to Navalny’s arrest and other cases without guilt.”
“They need to do both things together and not let Putin tell them that he will not accept New START unless they abandon Navalny or SolarWinds or Afghanistan,” said Fried, who now works for the Atlantic Council. “You have to hold back and you cannot allow Putin to determine the conditions.”
However, Putin may be cautious given his uncertain domestic stance in the wake of the pro-Navy protests that took place in more than 100 cities over the weekend.
Biden’s team responded forcefully to the campaign targeting Navalny supporters over the weekend, with more than 3,700 people arrested in demonstrations across Russia, including more than 1,400 in Moscow.
Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and Putin’s staunch critic, was arrested on 17 January while returning to Russia from Germany, where he spent nearly five months recovering from the nerve gas poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. The Russian authorities deny the charges.
White House Press Secretary Jane Basaki and State Department spokesman Ned Price have urged the immediate and unconditional release of Navalny, as well as those arrested in the crackdown.