July 12, 2021
A war rages inside Joe Biden’s foreign policy team between Russia-appeasers on the White House National Security Council (NSC) and those in the State Department and Pentagon who believe that Vladimir Putin is a global menace who must be contained and punished. This dust-up is a symptom of a more serious flaw which is Washington’s chronic failure to fully understand or counteract Moscow.
Now, six months into a new Presidency, the appeasers are winning so Putin has been riding roughshod over America by mounting cyber-attacks against the United States and saber-rattling against Ukraine. The current internal rift began when the White House team convinced Biden to back off Congressional sanctions approved in December to halt Putin’s pet project, the $11-billion pipeline to Germany. The decision showed weakness, so Putin doubled down by mobilizing troops, missiles, and warships against Ukraine and by instigating or countenancing cyber-attacks.
Worse, Russia’s misbehavior was rewarded with a coveted summit invitation extended by Biden, and unchallenged when the Pentagon turned back two warships in April that were headed to Ukraine’s Black Sea region to prevent a blockade or invasion. Sources say that turnaround was recommended by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Since Biden took office, three major ransomware attacks have pummelled America. After the first two, Biden warned Putin at the June 16 summit to desist or America would retaliate. When the third occurred in July, the President placed a private call to Moscow and said he “made it very clear” that “we expect him to act” to prevent future attacks. It was a surprisingly tepid response. In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out.
“Biden’s foreign policy is off the rails, and some in the State Department and Pentagon are up in arms,” commented a Washington observer. The DC buzz is that National Security Advisor Sullivan, his Deputy Jonathan Finer, and Amanda Sloat, head of the NSC’s European Department, opposed pipeline sanctions, and Biden, against his instincts, agreed and has handled Russia with kid gloves ever since. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wanted the sanctions, allege some sources, but was overruled.
Early this year, Germany and Russia lobbied ferociously in Washington in favor of their pipeline and reports indicated that Sloat cautioned against moving too quickly in order to repair the US relationship with Germany. This made little sense. The US relationship with Germany was bruised by the former President, but hardly in tatters. And while Germany is an important ally, it should never have supported a Russian pipeline — that the European Union, 27 European countries, and the U.S. Congress opposed — because the project will make the continent dangerously more dependent on the Kremlin.
In April, Biden imposed sanctions on Russia for its Solarwinds cyber-attacks in 2020. Word is that he had to ask three times for tougher sanctions than were proposed by Sullivan. Then in May, he backed off pipeline sanctions and has yet to announce sanctions or retaliatory measures concerning Russia’s three 2021 attacks.
Where are Blinken and the State Department in all of this? Some say Sullivan has the President’s ear while others point out that Blinken’s team is incomplete – ironically because sanctions co-sponsor Ted Cruz has held up 20 State Department nominations (many of whom are Russia hawks) until the pipeline is stopped. So there’s that.
Of ongoing concern, however, is that the Presidential foreign policy brain trust is light on Russian expertise. Blinken is not a Kremlin expert; Sullivan’s biography emphasizes experience concerning the Middle East and Myanmar; Sloat’s, Germany; and his Deputy, Jonathan Finer, was chief of staff for John Kerry, now Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. That may explain why Kerry is in Moscow this week to discuss global climate ambition with Putin officials. Given Russia’s misdeeds, it’s totally inappropriate that Kerry should have been allowed to hand-deliver another public relations coup to Putin, not to mention the fact that Russia’s track record is second only to China’s in terms of environmental degradation.
Adding fuel to the foreign policy fire was my June 8 Atlantic Council interview with Yuriy Vitrenko, the new head of Ukraine’s energy conglomerate. He lambasted Biden and speculated that Putin would out-maneuver him at the summit. Then he made the rounds in Washington lobbying aggressively against the pipeline. This upset the appeasers and sources say pressure has been applied in Ukraine to sideline Vitrenko — shocking given that he was merely underscoring to Americans the extent of the existential threat that the German-Russian pipeline represents to Ukraine.
Growing pipeline opposition on both sides of the Atlantic has forced proponents to hold bilateral talks with Germany in an attempt to mitigate or remove the pipeline’s threat to the region. Of course, this exercise is, in itself, an admission of the foolishness of allowing it in the first place. Secondly, nothing short of cancellation will mitigate or remove dangers. The bloody thing is, as Biden once said, “a bad deal for Europe”.
Clearly, a course correction is in order as well as a sea-change in mindset concerning how to handle Russia. This botch-up concerning Putin is simply the latest manifestation of America’s fatal foreign policy flaw, which is to regard Russia as simply another troublesome country. In reality, it’s an incorrigible KGB dictatorship and kleptocracy with a nuclear arsenal and a leader whose goal is to achieve world domination.
Not a single American regime – since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1992 — has fully comprehended this. And Washington’s current foreign policy “industry” appears to be over-populated with persons who were just out of school when Putin invaded Moldova and Georgia, then gobbled up a chunk of Ukraine. Few are culturally Eurasian, fluent in Russian, nor have they donned camouflage as military personnel in a warzone.
Even during the height of the Cold War, only one of America’s National Security Advisors – dating back to 1974 when the position was created – fully understood the Kremlin. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski was born in Poland in 1928, understood the languages, and during his tenure in the White House, between 1977 and 1981, encouraged dissidents in Eastern Europe and championed human rights in order to undermine the influence of the Soviet Union. His goal was to put the Soviet Union on the ideological defensive and, after he left office and the Soviet empire fell apart in 1992, he continued to warn that newly independent Ukraine had to be buttressed against Russian recapture to prevent a resurgence of the Soviet Empire.
He once famously said: “With Ukraine, Russia is an empire and without it, Russia is a poor Eastern European country”.
By contrast, the current crop of advisors still waves a tired “Russian reset” banner, or the failed attempt by the Obama Administration to improve relations with the Kremlin. Ukraine was invaded in 2014 by Russian proxies who captured territory the size of Latvia, drove out two million Ukrainians, killed 14,000 so far, and shot down a commercial airliner killing all 298 passengers aboard. There was hand-wringing in Washington, but Obama did virtually nothing with the result that today a violent Russo-Ukrainian war continues.
America’s foreign policy establishment must understand that Russia is as odious as was the Soviet Union during the Cold War, marauding and breaching the territorial integrity of other sovereign nations. In 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Finland, Moscow was immediately kicked out of the League of Nations. In 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia should have been booted off the Security Council and the United Nations but was not. Instead, it was simply suspended from the G7.
The only effective “Russian reset” is this: suspend Russia from the United Nations until it withdraws from the regions it occupies in Ukraine (Crimea and Donbas), Georgia, and Moldova. Stop the pipeline to Germany and retaliate against each and every Russian-based cyberattack with commensurate assaults and increasing sanctions.
Russia must be reigned in. This is not just about one rogue nation but is essential for world peace because Putin’s Russia is the nexus of most discord globally. My impression is that Joe Biden gets this. Surely he realizes that he must dramatically change course.