OP-ED: Biden now has the space to pressure Putin

Eli Lake
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Protesters hold a banner reading "Free Navalny" as some 2,500 supporters of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny march in protest to demand his release from prison in Moscow, on Jan. 23, 2021, in Berlin, Germany. (Omer Messinger/Getty Images Europe/TNS)

President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party spent the last four years warning that former president Donald Trump was compromised by Russia. Now the Biden administration has cut a deal with Moscow more favorable to Russia than the one the outgoing Trump team was trying to negotiate: Last month it extended for five years a major arms control treaty with Russia, known as New START.

Under Trump, the U.S. strategy was to press the Russians to freeze the development of nuclear warheads for weapons systems that are not covered in the treaty, such as artillery shells and short-range missiles. Ryan Tully, the senior director for European and Russian Affairs in Trump’s National Security Council until he resigned on Jan. 6, told me that he thought the New START treaty was flawed because it “covers almost the entirety of the U.S. deployed deterrent, but less than half of Russia’s.”

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At the same time, Tully said there was a benefit to extending the treaty for another five years. Now “there will be less opportunities to extract concessions from U.S. negotiators looking to cut a deal,” he said.

This may sound like a contradiction. But in the context of broader U.S. policy toward Russia, it makes sense. Drawn-out arms-control negotiations can suck up precious foreign-policy bandwidth. They can also give Russia potential leverage over other aspects of the relationship. If the U.S. pushes hard on political prisoners or Russian meddling in Ukraine, for example, Russia can threaten to walk away from New START, even though it’s in the interest of both countries to limit each other’s nuclear arsenal.

A version of this dilemma plagued the Obama administration’s first-term diplomacy with Russia. While the U.S. tried to get Moscow to support its sanctions against Iran (which it did, eventually) and allow new supply routes through former Soviet republics for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it largely ignored Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory following its invasion in 2008. The administration also tried hard to block Congress from imposing new human-rights sanctions on Russian officials connected to the killing of a Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Back then, the Russian president was Dmitri Medvedev, a technocrat whom the Obama administration wrongly believed it could work with. In contrast, there are very few areas where the Biden administration thinks it can cooperate with President Vladimir Putin.

Biden himself made this point earlier this month in an address at the State Department. “I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over,” Biden said.

This is a welcome sign. For now, the Biden administration is awaiting an intelligence community review of Russia policy before unveiling more detailed initiatives. Areas under review include allegations that Russia paid bounties for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; the recent Solar Winds hack; Russian interference in U.S. elections; and the poisoning of dissident Alexey Navalny.

The new administration will almost certainly discover what most careful observers of the Trump administration have known for a while: The previous administration’s policies were often at odds with the former president’s tweets and public ramblings.

The Trump administration did impose many costs on Russia. These include (to name a few) loosening restrictions on launching counter-attacks in cyberspace against state actors; imposing sanctions on the construction of a second gas pipeline between Germany and Russia; selling anti-tank missiles to Ukraine; and pressuring NATO partners to pay more for their collective defense.

There were times when Trump declined to follow the advice of his government experts. One former senior official told me that a set of new sanctions on Russia for the poisoning of Navalny was awaiting Trump’s approval when he left office. Navalny’s organization has also provided the Biden administration with a list of corrupt Putin cronies that it recommends placing on a financial blacklist.

All of this is to say that Biden has many options for making good on his promise of a tough Russia policy. By avoiding an arms-control negotiation with Moscow, the president has also removed a powerful temptation to weaken those policies.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.