Apr 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

What key senators want from a Biden-Putin summit

Photo illustrations of Presidents Biden and Vladimir Putin in profile

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Eric Baradat (AFP), Mikhail Klimentyev (TASS) via Getty Images

Senators from both parties tell Axios they generally approve the idea of a summit between President Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin but oppose any reset of relations between Washington and Moscow.

Why it matters: The Biden-Putin relationship is off to a contentious start following U.S. sanctions over Russia’s election interference and cyberattacks, Russia’s military buildup in Ukraine — and Biden’s characterization of Putin as a “killer.”

  • "It has to happen,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “No matter what qualms we have with Putin, he’s got a bunch of nuclear weapons. That alone means we have to have some kind of interaction with him." 
  • Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he didn’t see “any downside to this."
  • Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said it was a “good idea” so long as issues like Ukraine and cyberattacks are on the agenda. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he trusted Biden to “know when the right time is to sit down with Putin.”

It seems increasingly likely Biden will sit down with Putin sometime after the G-7 summit, being held in the United Kingdom in June. It will be the president's first overseas trip since taking office.

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly plans to visit Kyiv next month, likely as a further signal of support for Ukraine ahead of a potential Biden-Putin summit.
  • The White House said this month the president had proposed the summit to work toward a more “stable and predictable” relationship and avoid further escalation.
  • Biden demurred when asked about it on Tuesday, telling reporters attending his coronavirus speech, "I'll discuss that all another day."

The jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe also add to the urgency and volatility of any summit agenda.

Nonetheless, other senators were more cautious.

  • "We have seen this movie before and know how the dialogue between President Biden and President Putin will go,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 
  • He said Biden shouldn’t trust any commitments Putin makes and emphasized the president must implement sanctions before the summit aimed at blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — a position echoed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said Biden should push European allies to do more to ensure their own security, especially in relation to Russia, while in London and Brussels.
  • “We can't simultaneously resist Russian aggression and resist Chinese aggression. We just can't do both,” Hawley said.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Axios he trusted Biden to handle the summit effectively even if he didn't hold out high hopes.

  • “Russia has been getting plenty of off-ramps,” Menendez said. “They just don't seem to take them."
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