Biden Wants A 'Stable, Predictable' Relationship With Russia. That's Complicated

May 21, 2021
Originally published on May 22, 2021 7:14 am

In the run-up to meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit planned for next month, President Biden has shown he is willing to sanction Moscow for cyberattacks and election interference even as he proposes more "thoughtful dialogue."

"We want a stable, predictable relationship," Biden said last month when imposing the new sanctions.

But tensions in Washington over Russia policy have made it harder for Biden to reach his goal.

"Having anything other than hawkish views in public on Russia issues became risky," said Samuel Charap, who was an adviser on arms control issues in the Obama administration.

Case in point: an aggressive social media campaign when the White House was considering hiring Matthew Rojansky, director of Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, for an important job at the National Security Council.

Rojansky was accused of being on the Kremlin's payroll, and being anti-Ukrainian. (Rojansky declined comment for this story.)

Thomas Graham, who was a top Russia adviser to George W. Bush, said Rojansky's views were mischaracterized — and his character smeared.

"There's a group of individuals who jump on the social media and try to destroy or undermine the integrity of the people who oppose their views on Russia and use that as a way of trying to control the debate," Graham said.

Graham helped draft an open letter signed by dozens of former officials who found the criticism outrageous.

"The personal attacks on Mr. Rojansky were intended simultaneously to damage Mr. Rojansky's reputation and to shut down policy debate," the authors wrote. "We see all of this as very dangerous."

Former President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their joint press conference June 16, 2001, in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Biden is not the first president to struggle with the foreign and domestic politics involving Russia.

In 2001, President George W. Bush famously said he looked Putin in the eye and got a sense of his soul. Former President Barack Obama called for a reset with relations with Russia.

And then came former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly pushed back against intelligence that showed Russia tried to help him win office.

"I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia," Trump said, during his 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki. "I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."

Russian analysts say four years of questions about Trump's relationship with Russia made an already difficult issue much more fraught.

Charap said the campaign against Rojansky is just one example of a bigger issue. He said there needs to be a fulsome debate at this critical juncture in the relationship with Russia — especially with the Biden-Putin summit just around the corner.

"This is really about the public policy debate and whether we can have open debate and discussion, and people with a variety of views are not stigmatized for having those views," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden wants to ease tensions with Russia, so he's getting ready for a summit with President Vladimir Putin. That's one reason his top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was meeting with his counterpart this week, laying the groundwork. Here in Washington, there is tension over Biden's Russia policy. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: President Biden has said the days of rolling over to Vladimir Putin are over. He imposed new sanctions for Russia's interference in the elections and the SolarWinds cyber hack. But he also wants to work with Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship.

ORDOÑEZ: Right now, that relationship is in a pretty bad place. But he's trying to avoid mistakes made by his predecessors who had similar goals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

ORDOÑEZ: That was former President George W. Bush, who famously said he looked Putin in the eye and found him to be trustworthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: I wouldn't have invited him to my ranch if I didn't trust him.

(LAUGHTER)

ORDOÑEZ: Then there was former President Obama, who called for a reset in relations. And then came former President Trump. He repeatedly pushed back against intelligence that showed Russia tried to help him win office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

ORDOÑEZ: The issue of Russia hung over his time in office and his first impeachment trial. And that has made an already difficult issue poisonous. Here is Samuel Charap, who worked on Russia issues for Obama's State Department.

SAMUEL CHARAP: Having anything other than hawkish views in public on Russia issues became risky.

ORDOÑEZ: Take the case of Matthew Rojansky. He's a respected scholar and director of the Wilson Center Kennan Institute. The White House was considering him for an important job at the National Security Council, but then came a hostile Twitter campaign accusing him of being on the Kremlin's payroll and being anti-Ukrainian.

CHARAP: Took a number of us aback that he was sort of labeled controversial.

ORDOÑEZ: Charap and dozens of other former officials signed an open letter saying the criticism was outrageous.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Matt was the most recent case, we thought, of what was a broader problem that we've seen with - around the discussion of Russia policy.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Thomas Graham, who was a top Russia adviser to George W. Bush. He said Rojansky was smeared.

GRAHAM: There's a group of individuals who jump on to social media and try to destroy or undermine the integrity of the people who oppose their views on Russia.

ORDOÑEZ: Rojansky declined comment for this story.

It's a bigger issue than just one job. Charap said the extreme politics at home could make it harder for Biden to reach his goals on Russia.

CHARAP: This is really about the public policy debate and whether we can have open debate and discussion and people with a variety of views are not stigmatized for having those views.

ORDOÑEZ: He says a fulsome debate is even more important now, especially with the Biden-Putin summit just around the corner. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.