Now Is Not the Time to Go Easy on Russia

The National Defense Authorization Act working its way through Congress includes a provision to sanction Russia over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but reports indicate that the Biden administration is pushing to have the sanctions omitted. Given that Russia is challenging the United States across the board—most notably amassing troops at its border with Ukraine—President Biden should look for, not shy away from, opportunities to push back hard. 

Biden’s recent predecessors have a mixed record in dealing with the Russia threat. George W. Bush infamously said that he “was able to get a sense” of Vladimir Putin’s soul but recovered in time to help Georgia fend off a Russian invasion in 2008. While Mitt Romney was mocked for calling Russia our top geopolitical foe, the man he lost to in 2012 displayed insufficient backbone in dealing with Putin. As did Donald Trump for the most part.

When Obama sought an ill-defined “reset” with Russia. Moscow responded by invading Ukraine, sending troops to prop up the Assad regime in Syria, shooting down an airliner, launching cyberattacks harming American companies, granting asylum to the traitor Edward Snowden, beating up U.S. diplomats, harassing U.S. ships, and finally interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election against his party’s nominee.

Meanwhile Trump displayed a cringe-worthy infatuation with Putin, most notoriously during their Helsinki summit. Russia repaid the favor by testing dangerous nuclear-powered cruise missiles, ramping up cyberespionage against the U.S., sending mercenaries to Libya, and assassinating defectors and dissidents abroad with chemical weapons. (Although to Trump’s credit, his administration provided Ukraine with lethal aid, however grudgingly, while Obama’s did not, and U.S. forces killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria when they were attacked during Trump’s term.)

In the opening months of the Biden administration, Putin again upped the ante: launching ransomware attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure, using his ally Belarus to destabilize our ally Poland, seeking to send mercenaries to Mali, gloating over America’s defeat by the Taliban in Afghanistan, testing anti-satellite and hypersonic missiles, and (as mentioned above) massing 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and allegedly plotting a December coup d’état there. It continues to support extremist groups of both the far left and far right in the U.S., such as Texas secessionists.

Perhaps most seriously, Russia has allegedly ramped up attacks from some kind of directed energy weapon on American government personnel and their families, including immediately before a trip by Vice President Kamala Harris to Vietnam and during a trip by CIA Director Bill Burns to India, and reportedly even against White House staff and other personnel inside the U.S. These attacks may cause victims permanent physical disabilities. Everyone assumes for good reasons that Moscow is responsible for them, but the administration refuses to state the obvious in public.

Among the bad excuses given for not supporting tougher sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, is a fear of jeopardizing German support for President Biden’s climate change proposals. No one seriously thinks that countries such as China, Brazil, and India will ever agree to refrain from developing their economies, and pulling their poorest citizens out of hunger and poverty, in deference to left-wing pieties on fossil fuels. And no climate change agreement will be effective without the biggest greenhouse gas producers’ participation. All of which makes it irresponsible wishful thinking to put consensus on global warming ahead of immediate U.S. security interests.

Among the limited options available to American policymakers in deterring Russian misconduct are sanctions. President Biden should use them, and target them specifically at Putin, one of the richest men in the world, and the ill-gotten gains of his KGB colleagues from his tours in East Berlin and Leningrad who are now oligarchs. What else can be done?

The U.S. wisely avoided provoking direct confrontation with the Soviet’s Red Army during the Cold War; any clash with nuclear-armed Russia would be similarly dangerous. But continued American weakness in the face of increasing provocations by Russia could lead Putin to miscalculate: perhaps seizing some territory from NATO members such as the Baltic States, possibly while American strategic resources such as air and sea lift, are stretched thin during the looming crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

To minimize any misunderstanding of American resolve, the president should double down on two of his predecessor’s better initiatives—providing arms to Ukraine, and basing more U.S. forces in Poland and the Baltics. Biden should also continue to mend ties with NATO allies that frayed during the Trump years, an effort set back by his administration’s mishandling of the announcement that Australia would buy American and not French submarines.

There’s one more step he can take. Putin fears so-called “color revolutions” like those that took place in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05, and he falsely perceived the hidden hand of U.S. intelligence in them. American-led regime change is not a realistic option in Russia, for many reasons. But what President Biden can do is speak out loudly and clearly about democracy and human rights. It’s time to turn a page on the rhetoric of the last two presidents, who for very different reasons, engaged in far too much public criticism of U.S. history, and spoke up too little in defense of classically liberal Western values. 

Russians, with their history of czars and of suffering foreign invasions, may understand concepts such as freedom differently than Americans. Yet ideals such as this are powerful enough to motivate brave, imprisoned dissidents such as Alexei Navalny. Earlier generations of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky spoke of how Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist speeches helped give moral strength to prisoners in Soviet gulags. Biden can similarly use his high office to give hope to good men such as Navalny, by speaking the truth to evil men such as Putin.

Kevin Carroll served as an Army and CIA officer, senior counsel to the House Homeland Security Committee, and senior counselor to the Secretary of Homeland Security.

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