GUEST EDITORIAL: The bromance is over. Biden must make 'Vlad the Poisoner' keenly aware of that

Chicago Tribune editorial board (TNS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures while speaking as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, looks on during their joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

How will President Joe Biden handle “Vladimir the Poisoner”?

That’s what Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called Vladimir Putin this week, shortly before being hauled away to begin serving a 2-year, 8-month prison term for concocted allegations that he violated probation requirements. Navalny has good cause to slap that sobriquet on the Russian president. Navalny was poisoned in a nerve agent attack last summer and nearly died. All signs point to the assassination attempt coming straight from the pages of Putin’s playbook.

Death by toxin is by no means a new twist in the way the Kremlin deals with dissidents and perceived enemies, Western leaders have alleged. Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, survived an attempt on their lives in London in 2018 that employed the same nerve agent, Novichok, used on Navalny. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and fierce Putin critic, was poisoned to death in London after drinking tea laced with polonium. In both cases, U.K. authorities blamed the Russian government for the attacks.

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Navalny’s arrest upon his return to Russia, followed by the show trial sentence he received, sent massive crowds of Russians into the streets of Moscow and other major cities last month to demonstrate in support of Navalny. Predictably, Russian riot police put down those protests and arrested thousands.

Forging an effective, firm policy toward Putin’s Kremlin undoubtedly will be one of Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenges. His predecessor, Donald Trump, proved to be decisively outmatched by Putin. At times, Trump appeared to swoon over the way the Russian leader controlled everything in his country — his people, the media — with an iron fist. Remember the 2018 summit in Helsinki, when Trump horrified the West by swallowing hook, line and sinker Putin’s smirky denial of any meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Trump called Putin’s disavowal “strong and powerful.” The bromance endured.

It will be incumbent on Biden’s team to quickly lay out red lines for the Kremlin that carry consequences if crossed. Biden has already asked his new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, for a comprehensive intelligence assessment on Russian cyberattacks on the federal government, Kremlin interference in the 2020 elections, Russian intelligence-engineered bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and the attempt on Navalny’s life.

Rather than opting for a reset with Russia, as other presidents (including his old boss, Barack Obama) have done in the past, Biden appears to be readying a tougher posture toward Putin. At the same time, where there’s room for dialogue, Biden has been seeking Kremlin cooperation. That’s the case with the agreement this week to extend the New START treaty, which places limits on America and Russia’s nuclear arsenals.

That’s the right approach. Collaborate on subjects of mutual interest. But if sanctions are called for, use them. If the freezing of assets abroad belonging to Kremlin cronies is warranted, freeze them. The bromance is over. The former KGB spy who treats his own people — and everyone else, for that matter — as pawns in his endless string of power plays needs to get that message loud and clear.

— From the Chicago Tribune editorial board (TNS).