Insight

Who's appeasing Putin now?

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published December 20, 2021

Who's appeasing Putin now?
On the campaign trail in 2020, then candidate Joe Biden posed as hawk on Russia. In response to reports (later discredited) that then President Donald Trump had ignored intelligence suggesting Russia had paid for bounties on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Biden declared that Trump's "entire presidency has been a gift to Putin."

Biden's attitude was partly explained by his party's obsession with the (also discredited) theory that Trump conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election. And Trump's own inexplicable sycophancy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin bolstered this Democratic narrative. So it's understandable that some voters believed Biden would take a harder line on Putin than Trump.

Eleven months into Biden's presidency, that harder line has yet to emerge. In the current crisis in Ukraine, for example, Biden and his administration have told Putin that there will be devastating sanctions if he orders the troops amassed on Ukraine's border to invade. At the same time, Biden has invited Putin to a NATO summit to air his grievances about the alliance he seeks to break apart. The Biden administration has also sent mixed messages on whether Ukraine should give separatists in the Donbas region special political status before Russia withdraws its forces and dismantles the illegal armed groups it created during its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Another aspect of Biden's policy is that coercive measures against Russia are proposed as a consequence only if it invades. This makes Putin's destabilizing troop buildup on Ukraine's border essentially cost-free. Biden still hasn't used his congressionally mandated authority to send up to $200 million in military aid to Ukraine, an authority that exists for just this type of an emergency. Last week a group of Democratic House lawmakers urged the White House to tap this fund.

The Biden administration has also declined to enforce significant sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine and provide natural gas directly to Germany, depriving the struggling Ukrainian country of a critical source of revenue and a hedge against Russian belligerence. The U.S. has hinted that such sanctions would be enforced if there were an invasion, but for now Russia has a path to securing one of Putin's strategic priorities.

The lack of action has caught the attention of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. "It is important to have sanctions applied before, rather than after, the conflict would happen," he told reporters this week. "If they were applied after the conflict would happen, this would basically make them meaningless."

Biden's approach to Russia is part of a pattern. Consider the lack of response to Russia's hack earlier this year of the Colonial oil pipeline, which led to gasoline shortages across the U.S. Biden warned Putin that the U.S. would respond if Russian hackers targeted critical infrastructure again, but did not respond to the pipeline hack itself.

Biden also appeased Russia during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Initially, the U.S. wanted counterterrorism agreements with Afghanistan's neighbors, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But Russia instructed those governments to decline to meet with the U.S., leading the Biden administration to pursue a counterterrorism partnership with Russia instead. This is a tacit acknowledgement of Putin's claim to hold dominion over the republics that were once part of the Soviet Union.

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Alina Polyokova, the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told me that while she has been pleased with some of the recent rhetoric from the administration, many of her interlocutors in Eastern Europe are shocked that Biden has not pursued a more hawkish policy against Russia. "A lot of this is revealing that much of the criticism of Russia from the Democratic side was because of Trump and doesn't reflect policy," she said.

This presents a political crisis for Democrats, in addition to the strategic crisis in Ukraine. For four years, Democrats portrayed themselves as a party of Russia hawks, in contrast to a president they saw as Putin's lackey. But since Biden came into office, his administration has stopped enforcing major sanctions on Russia's pipeline to Germany, held off on punishing Russian hacks of critical infrastructure and now seeks to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine with threats alone.

Some might call that appeasement. Others might say Biden's presidency so far has been a gift to Vladimir Putin.

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.