Sep 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden's hardline Russia reset

Photo illustration of Joe Biden, St. Basil Cathedral, and a pattern of “I voted” stickers

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Getty Images photos: Mark Reinstein

When he talks about Russia, Joe Biden has sounded like Ronald Reagan all summer, setting up a potential Day 1 confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin if Biden were to win.

Why it matters: Biden has promised a forceful response against Russia for both election interference and alleged bounty payments to target American troops in Afghanistan. But being tougher than President Trump could be the easy part. The risk is overdoing it and making diplomacy impossible.

If Biden wins, his challenge will be to punish Putin while also preserving his ability to work with him on arms control and China.

  • "I wouldn't put Russia into the easy category," said Michael Carpenter, a former Biden adviser who remains in touch with the campaign.
  • "A Biden administration will put in place a much more principled and coherent strategy for containing Russia's aggression,” he said.
  • “I believe Russia is an opponent, I really do,” Biden said at a CNN town hall Thursday night. “I view China as a competitor, a serious competitor.”

The big picture: There are other voices in Biden’s party, as well as the foreign policy establishment, who are calling for a more cautious approach.

When Barack Obama attempted a Russian "reset" — a goal Biden supported as vice president — the objective was to soften America's relationship with Russia, not harden it. The skeptics don't think Biden needs an Obama-style reset, but they do want a renewed focus on diplomacy.

  • "We are urging an eyes-wide-open look at what our interests are with the Russia Federation," said Rose Gottemoeller, a former Obama administration official and a former NATO deputy secretary general. "It's important to keep engaging with Russia."
  • “If all we do is moral outrage and sanction them, we aren’t going to make much progress," said Fiona Hill, a former Russia policy specialist on the National Security Council who testified in Trump's impeachment trial and is now at the Brookings Institution.
  • Biden will come down “in the middle between the folks who say we have to work with the Russians and the others who says it’s the Cold War redux," said Jim Townsend, a former Obama Pentagon official who is in touch with the Biden campaign.

For the record: "A Biden Administration will confront Russian aggression from a position of strength, even as we work to maintain strategic stability," said campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo.

  • "Unlike this Administration which has never taken the Russian threat seriously, Joe Biden will rally our allies to deter Russian aggression as a united front, and protect the interests of Western democracies."  

Between the lines: Biden might not have that much room to deescalate, as Congress passed sanctions under Obama and Trump.

  • "Given the number of Russia sanctions that are in place, it will be very difficult for a Biden administration to reset relations," said Tim Morrison, a former Trump NSC official.

Driving the news: The New START treaty, which limits the number of deployed strategic warheads and delivery systems for the U.S. and Russia, expires on Feb. 5, 2021, 16 days into a potential Biden presidency.

  • While it’s not impossible for Trump to get a fully signed new treaty in the next four months, it's unlikely. That would leave the negotiations to Biden's team.
  • “You can continue to do arms control even as you are arguing about a lot of other things,” said Thomas Countryman, a former acting undersecretary of state for arms control under Obama.

What they're saying: Biden has seized upon Russian headlines, most recently the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to sharpen contrasts with Trump, and has repeatedly warned Russia not to meddle in the 2020 election.

  • “I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice,” Biden said in a July 20 statement. “A range of other actions could also be taken, depending on the nature of the attack.”
  • Trump disputes intelligence assessments from his own government that indicate that Russia wants him to win. “The last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump because nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have,” the president said in August.

Of note: FBI director Chris Wray testified Thursday that Russia has engaged in "very active efforts" to interfere with the 2020 election by hurting Biden, primarily through social media proxies.

Flashback: At the start of his administration, Obama attempted the reset with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But the relationship foundered, and when Putin formally returned to power in 2012, he and Obama both distrusted and disliked one another.

  • When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the relationship further deteriorated.
  • In one of Obama’s final foreign policy moves, he ejected 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives in retaliation for 2016 election interference.

Be smart: We may never officially know if a President Biden retaliates for any 2020 Russia meddling, especially if it’s a cyber response.

  • “More effective than sanctions is treatment in kind,” Countryman said. “We can be just as credible in our denials as the Russians are.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from the Biden campaign.

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