Apr 10, 2021 - World

Scoop: Biden eyes Russia adviser criticized as soft on Kremlin

Matthew Rojansky

Photo: Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images

President Biden is considering appointing Matthew Rojansky, head of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, as Russia director on the National Security Council, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Why it matters: Rojansky has been praised for his scholarship on Russia and is frequently cited in U.S. media for his expert commentary. But his work has drawn criticism — including in a 2018 open letter from Ukrainian alumni of Kennan that blasted the think tank he runs as an "unwitting tool of Russia’s political interference."

Background: Rojansky has served as director of the Kennan Institute, widely viewed as one of the world's premier think tanks on Russia, since 2013. He was previously deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  • In 2017, Rojansky decried America's "Cold War style paranoia about the Russian bogeyman," acknowledging that Putin "is a huge problem for the United States" while arguing that escalation carries "unacceptable risks." He has consistently called for managing competition with Russia in a way that protects U.S. interests and minimizes risks.
  • "Russia is not going to go away," Rojansky wrote in a National Interest op-ed last year criticizing what he characterized as the overuse of sanctions. "Peaceful coexistence remains an imperative, no matter how unsavory Putin’s regime might be."

In 2018, 31 Ukrainian alumni of the Kennan Institute wrote an open letter criticizing the think tank's "growing pro-Kremlin policies, lack of democratic procedures and unprofessional communication with Kennan Institute alumni in Ukraine."

  • The letter accused Rojansky of firing the director of the Kennan Institute's Kyiv office for political reasons and appointing a replacement "known for his biased analysis of Ukraine's post-Euromaidan developments."
  • The alumni also condemned the Kennan Institute for hosting pro-Kremlin guests including Alfa Bank President Petr Aven, who was later named in a Treasury report on Russian oligarchs close to Putin.

Rojansky also made an appearance in former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's guilty plea for unregistered foreign lobbying on behalf of the pro-Putin former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

  • In an April 2013 email cited in a court filing by special counsel Robert Mueller, Manafort wrote: "This week we directed the efforts of a number of positive news articles that appeared in several prominent publications and in the digital media space."
  • One of the articles Manafort linked to was a CNN op-ed by Rojansky, which argued that Yanukovych could win "greater credibility" for a "wide range of reforms" he had undertaken by releasing opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko from prison.
  • Robert Litwak, senior vice president at the Wilson Center, told Axios in a statement: "The Wilson Center's Matthew Rojansky is one of the country's top experts on Russia, Ukraine and the region ... The CNN article in question, and all of the Center's work, is the product of independent research and analysis."

The big picture: Rojansky's potential appointment comes at a fraught moment in U.S.-Russia relations, with tensions running high over the Kremlin's 2020 election interference, the SolarWinds hack of U.S. agencies, detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and recent military buildup along the border of eastern Ukraine.

  • Biden has ruled out an Obama-style "reset" of relations, and triggered an early spat with Moscow by labeling Putin a "killer" in a TV interview. He sanctioned Russian officials over the attempted poisoning of Navalny and is expected to announce additional sanctions in the coming weeks over the SolarWinds hack and Russia's election meddling.
  • The administration has drawn concerns from U.S. allies and members of Congress, however, for not moving faster and more aggressively with sanctions to stop the completion of the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would be a huge geopolitical win for Putin.
  • Hawks are worried about what Rojansky's appointment would mean for Biden's resolve to confront Russia.
  • Biden has stressed the importance of engaging with Russia on matters of shared interest, extending the New START nuclear treaty in his first days in office and inviting Putin to a virtual summit on climate change later this month.

An NSC spokesperson declined to comment.

Flashback: The NSC's Russia portfolio endured significant turmoil and staff turnover under the Trump administration, with several top officials testifying before Congress in the Trump-Ukraine scandal and another escorted off White House grounds for unspecified security reasons.

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