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Joe Biden’s Trumpian Russia Policy

Six months into his presidency, Biden has yet to show he understands the Russian threat better than his predecessors.
July 1, 2021
Joe Biden’s Trumpian Russia Policy
US President Joe Biden (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Few of former President Donald Trump’s policies (to say nothing of his personal and rhetorical deeds) deserve as much criticism as his policy toward Russia. Various critics have offered varyingly lurid explanations: Vladimir Putin lured Trump to capitulation by bribery, or promises of corrupt dealings, or appealed to his malignant vanity, or simply outwitted the bumbling ignoramus and political neophyte, or all of the above.

So what’s Joe Biden’s excuse?

Certainly, Biden changed the narrative about Putin. But with each passing day, the episode of calling Putin a “killer” looks to have been conspicuous theater to camouflage the rollout of Biden’s own capitulatory Russia policy.

And boy did that capitulation begin with a bang. Waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—which will pump more Russian influence and corruption into the heart of Europe than energy—delivered to Putin his largest geopolitical win in a decade and stabbed Ukraine and our Central European NATO allies in the back. None of Trump’s shameful policies was as efficiently counterproductive.

Sure, Biden has sanctioned other stuff, but sanctions are not a reasonable alternative to an actual Russia policy. President Barack Obama, as his “reset” gasped for air, resorted to sanctions—which lent themselves nicely to his extemporaneous Russia policy-making. Trump viewed the Russia relationship transactionally and never developed a Russia policy as such. Sanctions served the purpose of helping him to appear hawkish when domestic politics demanded it.

Biden’s Russia policy has a similar overdependence on sanctions. Just like with Obama and Trump, they will not be an effective defense against Russia’s ongoing campaign to undermine liberal democracy.

That bears repeating: Putin wants to undermine America and has a policy to do so. Obama and Trump failed to counter it because they had no policy for it. Biden is no different. Anything short of a holistic policy will not hold Putin at bay. Where is Congress?

Look at this through Putin’s eyes for a moment. He has invaded neighbors, shot down a civilian airliner, helped Syrian President Assad murder hundreds of thousands of Syrians, attacked a detachment of U.S. Marines, meddled with America’s elections, tried to use WMD to assassinate someone on NATO soil (and wound up killing the wrong people), and sees his role as returning the favor America paid the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Kremlin even facilitated Trump’s Hunter Biden obsession for his reelection campaign. But after the Russian autocrat smeared the son of a man who became President of the United States, the new president turned around and made Putin’s geopolitical dreams come true. You could forgive Putin for thinking that he will be able to get away with anything with Biden.

After each reprehensible action, he faced only economic sanctions, and, at no time during Putin’s two decades in power, has the United States taken his threat—which is not a military threat—seriously.

For Trump and now Biden, Putin seems more a prop than a threat. Trump saw Putin as a convenient excuse to hold a summit and get some (un)earned media. He wanted his unnecessary Helsinki summit to showcase his dealmaking skills.

We see that same goal mirrored in Biden’s unnecessary Geneva summit, where Biden got to demonstrate that his Putin summits would look different from Trump’s. Both summits were devoid of substance—the meeting was the agenda. Biden’s supposed goal for the summit was to produce “strategic stability” and “predictability.” Obama claimed predictability would follow from his Russia reset . . . almost exactly eleven years ago. We’ve seen this episode before.

And so has Putin.

Surely, during Putin’s two decades in power, Biden should have noticed that the only predictable thing about Putin is his ability to snooker new American presidents and then inject himself into their agenda to keep the global spotlight on Russia. The only way to get any other kind of predictability from Putin is to box him in. Fill his bandwidth to curb his freedom of action. Political warfare would do the trick.

The then-Republican-controlled Congress received plenty of well-deserved grief for refusing to criticize Trump’s flaccid Russia policy. Now that they are in power, congressional Democrats are the ones letting the White House off the hook. Notwithstanding their former, near-constant cacophony about Trump and Russia, Democrats seem satisfied by the pointless Cold-War kabuki cosplay. They have shifted seamlessly from complaining about the White House’s weak Russia policy to covering for an equally weak one.

Putin must be marveling at the uninterrupted weakness that began with Obama and continues unabated through three presidencies to this day, each weaker than the next and explained away by partisan allies. If Biden does not develop a serious Russia policy, or the Democrats in Congress do not demand one, Democratic voters will need to digest that Biden is weaker than Trump on Russia.

After all, Putin has.

Kristofer Harrison

Kristofer Harrison is senior managing director for a macroeconomic consultancy and is a Russia expert. Previously, he served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush administration.  Twitter: @ToferH.