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National Security & Defense

Exclusive: Conservatives Warn Biden against Russia ‘Reset’

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his annual end-of-year news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, December 17, 2020. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

The largest group of conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill is accusing President Joe Biden of exhibiting “a dangerous pattern of weakness” toward Russia, and of perhaps even seeking a “reset” of relations.

Representative Jim Banks, the group’s chairman, pans Biden’s approach in a memo to RSC members, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by National Review ahead of its release. The message marks the most comprehensive Republican salvo against Biden’s Russia policy to date.

It follows a speech by Biden at the White House yesterday, during which he announced new sanctions on Russian individuals and entities for the SolarWinds hack and Moscow’s interference in the 2020 election and called for a summit to discuss “de-escalation” of the tensions between the two powers.

The RSC charges that Biden’s tough talk has not been matched by a sufficient policy to counter Moscow’s misbehavior. When it comes to Russia, writes Banks, “President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a ‘killer,’ then his team mostly returned to failed ‘reset’ Obama policies.” The Indiana Republican goes on to criticize the president for his conciliatory remarks this week as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border.

Biden notably campaigned on rhetoric critical of Putin’s repression at home and Russia’s aggressive foreign policy abroad, drawing a contrast between his own hawkish rhetoric and what he claimed was former president Trump’s insufficient approach. Although Trump spoke approvingly of the Russian president, in one instance even taking Putin’s assertions over those of the U.S. intelligence community, he presided over an administration that bulked up the U.S. military and its presence in Eastern Europe, sent lethal weaponry to Ukraine, and responded to Russian misbehavior with several aggressive sanctions packages.

So far, Biden’s approach has been considerably weaker, Banks writes, citing Biden’s unconditional renewal of New START, a bilateral arms-control agreement, for five years without negotiating new provisions to cover modern weapons. And despite the Biden administration’s decision to impose sanctions on Russian entities for the attempted assassination of dissident Alexei Navalny, cyber breaches, and political interference, critics say that the president hasn’t gone far enough.

Although the RSC had previously called for imposing sanctions on Russian sovereign debt, as the administration did this week, Banks writes that the White House’s implementation of the policy includes “a number of exceptions that lack real teeth.” The Biden administration also neglected to include some key entities in its sanctions, such as VTB, a Russian bank.

Banks also joins the bipartisan chorus on Capitol Hill calling for the president to sanction entities involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2, a Russian pipeline that some governments worry would cement Moscow’s energy dominance on the continent. Although German chancellor Angela Merkel has vocally defended the project, which involves numerous German firms, the governments of Ukraine and Poland have called it a “dangerous, divisive project.” More recently, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation as “a matter of war.”

For his part, Biden said yesterday that imposing new sanctions would be “complicated” for U.S. allies, though he added that such measures remain “in play.” And while the Wall Street Journal reported that although the administration has crafted sanctions targeting construction of the pipeline that Biden could choose to implement, a source close to Zelensky told Axios that Ukraine has not “received assurances from Washington that all possible measures will be taken to stop the pipeline from being built.”

As congressional criticism of the Biden administration’s Russia policy grows, it’s increasingly clear that the president’s approach falls far short of the robust response to the Kremlin’s malign actions that he promised, even risking a rollback of the previous administration’s tougher stance.

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