On April 13, as tens of thousands of Russian military forces deployed along the Ukrainian border, U.S. president Joe Biden picked up the phone and called Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. According to the White House readout of the call, the two leaders discussed a variety of issues before Biden made a request: Would Putin meet him in a third country in the coming months? To sweeten the pot, Turkish media reported the next day that U.S. officials had rescinded the planned deployment of two U.S. warships into the Black Sea.
There was just one problem: Vladimir Putin. Instead of placating the Russian leader, Biden had emboldened him. Days after the U.S. decision to recall its warships, Moscow announced that it was closing parts of the Black Sea for six months, imperiling Ukraine’s access to its own ports in the Sea of Azov.
In late May, the story repeated itself. Two days after Putin’s proxy, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, forced an Irish airplane carrying a dissident blogger to make an emergency landing in Minsk, the White House made the Biden-Putin summit official: Wednesday, June 16th in Geneva, Switzerland. Once again, Moscow slapped away Washington’s outstretched hand, temporarily blocking several European airlines that had planned to circumvent Belarussian airspace from landing in Russia.
Even more egregiously, Microsoft disclosed that as the summit details were being finalized, the same Russian foreign-intelligence agency that had perpetrated the SolarWinds hack had continued a brazen attack on at least one U.S. government agency. So much for the president’s rationale, offered in April, that he “chose to be proportionate” in response to SolarWinds in order to avoid “a cycle of escalation.”
To make his contempt unmistakable, Putin’s courts last week shut down the political network of Alexei Navalny, the high-profile opposition figure languishing in jail, on the very day that Biden boarded Air Force One for Europe. As any observer can see, a pattern is developing: What Biden thinks is prudential diplomacy, Putin reads as weakness. In both word and deed, the U.S. is chasing cooperation with Russia that will never materialize. It’s time for the Biden administration to realize that Putin isn’t interested in cooperation — he views the bilateral relationship in zero-sum terms, and he’s intent on winning. The U.S. should adjust accordingly.
Alas, the Biden administration has hardly showcased the type of strength that might impress the former KGB colonel turned president-for-life sitting in the Kremlin. Just a week after his inauguration, for example, Biden gifted Putin a full extension of the New START agreement, dismantling American leverage in the hopes of kick-starting additional arms-control talks in the future. More recently, in Vienna, Russian negotiators have watched U.S. officials pursue sanctions relief for the very country, the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose proxies launch rockets into Saudi Arabia and Israel, two of America’s top security partners in the Middle East. Late last month, Russia deployed three nuclear-capable bombers to its base in Syria for the first time. Now, it is reportedly preparing to sell Iran an advanced satellite system with military applications.
At home, the story hasn’t been any better. The Biden administration has failed to deter Russian groups from launching ransomware attacks on America’s critical infrastructure. Less than a month after hackers paralyzed the United States’ largest fuel pipeline, Colonial Pipeline, disrupting services up and down America’s East Coast, a ransomware attack hit JBS USA, temporarily shutting down the country’s biggest beef producer. It is unlikely that such attacks could have taken place from Russia without the Kremlin’s knowledge, or even approval. And yet, in between these cyberattacks, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced that he was waiving, on national-interest grounds, congressionally mandated sanctions against Russia’s Nordstream 2 natural-gas pipeline.
It is difficult to overstate the damage this particular project, Nordstream 2, would wreak on Europe. Far from an energy system, Nordstream 2 is an economic stratagem designed by Putin to weaken, subvert, and split the countries of Eastern Europe from their Western neighbors. It is a tool of Russian revanchism thinly disguised as an energy project. Upon completion, Nordstream 2 would deliver gas from Russia directly to Germany across the Baltic Sea, bypassing existing routes in Eastern Europe. This would provide Russia with an energy stranglehold over Eastern Europe and threaten the region’s political independence. In particular, it would provide Russia with powerful leverage over Ukraine, with which it remains at war.
There can be no doubt that, when it chooses to, Russia will exercise this leverage just as it has in the past. The list of recent Russian aggressions is long. In just over a decade, Moscow has intervened militarily in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, and played a decisive role in propping up wobbly regimes in Caracas and Minsk. Most recently, in April, Prague revealed that Russian agents had even bombed an arms depot on Czech territory in 2014 that included weapons destined for Kyiv. From assassinations and cyberattacks to poisonings and crackdowns, Russia has rarely missed an opportunity to undermine the West.
The Biden administration claims to understand this; the president himself has repeatedly denounced Nordstream as a bad deal. But it issued waivers because it is loath to apply extraterritorial sanctions against the citizens and companies of an allied country, a step that German officials and analysts have warned would be unacceptable. As Biden explained recently, “to go ahead and impose sanctions now would be counterproductive in terms of our European relations.”
Indeed, while those who know the president best say he considers Russia a power in decline, he views China as a rising challenge that requires the support of Europe and Germany. As one prominent German observer summarized the waiver decision, “Biden apparently thinks the relationship with Germany is more important than stopping Nordstream 2.”
We sympathize with the Biden administration’s reluctance to sanction an ally.
But by signaling to Germany that improving ties is his top priority while blaming any transatlantic turbulence on his predecessor, the president only encouraged Berlin’s obstinate refusal to consider alternatives, the president only encouraged Berlin’s obstinate refusal to consider alternatives.
Just as bad, there are no indications that the American climb-down on Russia will lead to levels of coordination with Germany on China that would justify such a concession. Instead, it signals to the world that the U.S. can be pushed off its policy, denting American credibility, while undercutting the powers of Congress under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Most of all, it invites further Russian aggression.
By most estimates, Nordstream 2 may be completed by as early as this summer, with a certification process to follow. If the White House wants to establish a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, as it often emphasizes, then it must reestablish its own credibility. Truly “unwavering” American opposition to the pipeline, as Secretary Blinken describes it, would delay the project past this fall’s election in Germany, giving the U.S. an opportunity to achieve a better outcome with a new government in place.
But even if it does not succeed, the U.S. should be secure in the knowledge that it can afford a hard line on this issue. Berlin’s dogged insistence on Nordstream 2 has isolated it across huge parts of Europe, including in the EU’s major institutions. Moreover, the present German government is skeptical of America’s approach toward China yet remains reliant on the U.S. for its security. It is Berlin, more than Washington, that should be wary of deteriorating ties, yet it is Washington, not Berlin, that is ceding ground on Nordstream 2.
As a next step, the Biden administration must bring Eastern Europe, and not just Germany, into its deliberations. “Our American allies did not find time to consult with the region most exposed to the consequences of that decision,” Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, said of the sanction waivers last week. “What did Ukraine do to deserve being locked out of consultations on Nord Stream 2 by the Biden administration? Why did the Americans block a NATO-Ukraine summit ahead of the Biden-Putin meeting?”
By now it should be clear to the White House that Putin speaks only the language of strength. Just weeks before the Biden-Putin summit, Russia announced the formation of 20 new military units along its western border for the express purpose of countering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead of offering concessions in “areas where our interests align or certainly overlap,” as Secretary Blinken likes to say, Biden should use the summit to counter Russian posturing with American strength. Better to rebuild American credibility by standing with our front-line allies, targeting Nordstream 2, and confronting Russia than to pursue an illusory agenda of bilateral cooperation underwritten by U.S. concessions.
To date, the Biden administration hasn’t settled into the tough policies it promised during the presidential campaign last year. Let’s hope that changes before it’s too late, beginning in Geneva this week.
Peter Rough was director of research in the Office of George W. Bush and is now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. Tim Morrison was deputy assistant to the president for National Security and a Senior Director for European Affairs and is now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.