Biden confronts Russia — and Republicans are listening

Biden confronts Russia — and Republicans are listeningJanuary 28, 2021

Congressional Republicans quietly grumbled for four years that former President Donald Trump’s passive rhetoric about Russia didn’t match the severity of his administration’s actions targeting the Kremlin.

Now, President Joe Biden’s more aggressive public posture toward Vladimir Putin is begrudgingly refreshing for Republicans — and it’s something they wish they saw from Trump.

“Clearly, Putin is a malign force in the world. He is a terrible leader. He is thuggish in his behavior. And I’m glad we’re pushing back,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the Intelligence Committee.

Indeed, Biden is already striking a different tone. According to the White House, the president confronted Putin during a phone call this week over Russia’s malign activities, including its alleged bounties on American troops in the Middle East, the suspected poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the massive cyberattack targeting the U.S. government and the private sector.

“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” the White House said.

The shift is a welcome development on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where lawmakers were consumed with scandals and investigations about Trump’s relationship with Moscow. And it underscored Biden’s efforts to keep Russia at bay, neither mending nor further inflaming the relationship between the two countries.

“Maybe Biden’s approach will serve us better. We’ll have to see,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. “Certainly this president’s rhetoric, maybe in the first week or two, is different. Whether there’s a different relationship or outcome remains to be seen.”

On the campaign trail, Biden harangued Trump as a Putin apologist, and the former president often drew criticism from his own party, especially after he contradicted and undermined the U.S. intelligence community when he said he believed Putin’s denials of election interference.

Republicans lauded Biden’s consistency, but they said the new administration should maintain the Trump team’s robust policies against Russia, which included expelling Russian diplomats. To the chagrin of many in the GOP, those actions were often overshadowed by the former president’s deferential posture toward Putin, including his persistent efforts to downplay the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election.

“All of the noise around Putin and Trump was really more about what [Trump] was unwilling to say publicly,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But in terms of public policy, there hasn’t been an administration that’s taken tougher steps on Russia.”

Biden has a long way to go to build trust among Republicans when it comes to his foreign-policy goals. While Republicans welcomed the aggressiveness, they’re raising new concerns about Biden’s bid for a five-year extension of a nuclear arms control treaty known as New START — one that the Trump administration did not want to renew. And some are questioning Biden’s stern rhetoric given the Obama administration’s pursuit of a so-called “reset” with Russia, which ultimately failed.

“I’m sure Putin will turn over an entirely new leaf as a result of the conversation,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) joked before adding: “There’s nothing Putin would like better than a clean extension of New START. That’s a huge gift to him.”

Biden maintained on Tuesday that extending the New START treaty, which expires next month, is “in the mutual self-interest of our countries,” and that his administration can work with Moscow while at the same time calling out Putin for malign behavior.

Republicans are not as confident, noting that Russia has exploited loopholes in New START to amass certain kinds of nuclear weapons. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday cautioned against “worshiping arms control like a religion.”

“I think it’s fine to have a phone call, but what means more is what you do,” added Cornyn. “And I’m concerned about it.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a top ally of the new president, said Biden’s approach toward Russia is “one of the starkest contrasts you will see” with the new administration, and said it’s possible to conduct diplomacy with an adversary while also holding it accountable.

“I’m glad that while the president is pursuing extending the New START agreement, at the same time he’s being hard-edged with Russia on all of those things,” Menendez said. “Russia only understands strength, so this is a tremendous beginning. I think you’ll not just see the words that President Biden used, but you’ll see actions commensurate with those words.”

That was often not the case under Trump. Sometimes, lawmakers had to step in and ensure that the president was not blocking some of the penalties the U.S. was imposing on Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, most notably after the administration failed to implement several mandatory sanctions against Russian individuals and entities.

Trump also faced significant backlash during his 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki, during which he said at a joint press conference with his counterpart that “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia who meddled in the 2016 campaign. The statement stunned lawmakers and Trump’s own officials alike, especially considering the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the election to boost Trump’s candidacy.

“The issue was, that’s where all the speculation and the noise and the criticism was about — what he wouldn’t say in a press conference,” said Rubio, who occupies a top perch on the Foreign Relations panel.

Ultimately, the Trump administration took decisive actions that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to see maintained. If that’s the case, McConnell said on Wednesday, the Biden administration will find “willing partners on Capitol Hill.”

“If President Biden and his team are serious about contesting China, Russia, and these other threats, they’ll need to show it,” McConnell said. “Without continued, robust investment in a modern, global force presence, American leadership would be little more than hollow rhetoric.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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