In style and rhetoric, the change is clear.
But on policy, analysts say the “continuity” is undeniable.
A stark difference in President Biden’s tone toward Russia has obscured the fact that on substantive matters, his approach thus far on many issues follows squarely in the tracks of former President Trump. From economic sanctions against Kremlin officials to U.S. weapons sales to Ukraine, the defining moves during the first months of Mr. Biden’s self-described get-tough-on-Russia policy differ little from those employed by his predecessor, Mr. Trump, whom Democrats spent four years pillorying as a tool of the Kremlin who was unwilling to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While it’s still early in Mr. Biden’s tenure, foreign policy specialists say that so far there’s been little break from key aspects of the Trump years.
“So far in policy — and I would caution to keep in mind that all of the Biden nominees are not fully in place — I think the Trump administration was tougher than people give it credit for. And the Biden administration is also going to be pretty tough on the Russians,” said Donald Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat who is now director for Russia and strategic stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“The Trump administration was tougher than it seems, and thus the continuity of the Biden administration is probably more than people would give it credit for,” he said.
Still, analysts noted that there is an inarguable difference in tone between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden on Russia. Mr. Jensen said that the Biden White House so far has presented a much more “coherent narrative” on U.S.-Russia relations than the often-muddled messages of the Trump era, which mixed non-stop media coverage of Mr. Trump’s supposed collusion with Moscow with more hard-line policies pursued by Trump appointees at the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies.
Democrats argue that those style differences are themselves a major change in policy. Inside the administration and in Democratic circles across Washington, Mr. Biden’s supporters contend that by embracing NATO allies, standing up for Russian dissidents and condemning Mr. Putin publicly in ways Mr. Trump often seemed reluctant to do, the president is turning the page and signaling a much harder line.
The differences, they say, will be on full display next month in Geneva when Mr. Biden meets face to face with Mr. Putin, a meeting some of Mr. Biden’s critics already say is a concession to his Russian counterpart, a man Mr. Biden has already identified as a “killer.”
The White House already is setting expectations for a frosty encounter between the two men and looking to contrast the meeting with an infamous 2018 Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, where Mr. Trump suggested that he believed Mr. Putin’s denial of any Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Mr. Trump later said he misspoke and meant that Russia did, in fact, have reason to meddle in American elections.
Mr. Biden is expected to confront Mr. Putin over election interference in 2016 and 2020, recent Russia-linked cyberattacks on SolarWinds, Colonial Pipeline and other U.S. targets, the poisoning and detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and a host of other issues.
“We may have forgotten over the last couple of years, but this is how diplomacy works,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week. “We don’t meet with people only when we agree. It’s actually important to meet with leaders when we have a range of disagreements, as we do with Russian leaders.”
Analysts say the meeting will provide Mr. Biden a forum for geopolitical theater.
“In Biden’s best-case scenario, the Geneva summit will last one news cycle and it will be Biden standing up to Putin when Trump didn’t,” said Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “And then the whole country will move on and that will be a victory. Then the administration can say, ‘We’re being tougher on Russia’ — unless they’re challenged on the details.”
Mr. Biden has tried to appear tougher on Russia in other public forums as well. During an interview with ABC News in March, Mr. Biden endorsed the interviewer’s description of Mr. Putin, onetime KGB agent, as “a killer” because of the Kremlin’s targeting of Mr. Navalny and other dissidents over the years.
The incident seemed to accomplish little other than the mutual expulsion of one another’s diplomats by both the U.S. and Russia, and the ratcheting up of already high military tensions between the two old Cold War foes.
‘Biden has essentially folded’
For Mr. Biden’s critics, the president’s tough talks belie his actual dealings with Russia.
The decision last week to effectively allow the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to proceed, they say, offers some evidence that the president is in some ways actually weaker on Russia than his predecessor.
Some Republicans say Mr. Biden has ceded the high ground to Mr. Putin after deciding to waive economic sanctions on the leading company behind the project, which critics say will give Moscow vast power over the energy supplies of Europe and bypass allies Ukraine and Poland as vital transshipment routes for Russian energy to Western markets.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said the Nord Stream issue looms large over the meeting next month. He also said the White House should also have reconsidered the sit-down because of Russia’s continued support for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who earlier this week sparked international outrage by pulling a prominent Belarusian journalist off of a diverted commercial airline flight and imprisoning him.
“Putin imprisoned Alexei Navalny and his puppet Lukashenko hijacked a plane to get Roman Protasevich. Instead of treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people, we’re giving him his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline and legitimizing his actions with a summit. This is weak,” Mr. Sasse said.
Mr. Biden moved quickly on one issue important to Russia that Mr. Trump resisted, quickly agreeing to a five-year, unconditional extension of the 2011 New START agreement, the last major arms control pact between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, just weeks into his administration. Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s top arms negotiator, said at the time that the U.S.. offer “squandered the most significant leverage we have over Russia.”
On Nord Stream, Mr. Biden said this week that imposing sanctions now would be “counterproductive” since the pipeline is nearly completed and ally Germany strongly backs the project, though he reiterated his longstanding opposition to the pipeline.
U.S.-Russia analysts, however, say that the decision to forgo sanctions should shatter the notion that Mr. Biden is projecting a newfound toughness toward the Kremlin.
“From what I’ve seen, so far there has basically been a continuation of the Trump administration’s policies toward Russia … where there are noticeable differences are on Nord Stream 2,” Mr. Coffey said.”Trump hammered this issue big time. … Of course, Biden has essentially folded on Nord Stream 2.”
On economic sanctions more broadly, however, there are similarities between the administrations.
The Trump administration imposed dozens of sanctions on Russian officials and businesses in response to cyberattacks and other issues. The use of targeted sanctions against Russia became commonplace during the Obama administration and gained steam during Mr. Trump’s tenure.
For cyber-related offenses alone, the U.S. has imposed 141 economic sanctions on Russia over the past decade, according to figures compiled by the Center for a New American Security.
The Biden administration has continued that trend.
The Treasury Department in April announced a host of new sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses in response to the massive SolarWinds hack of the U.S. government and private industry computer networks. Some Democrats argue that those penalties are better targeted and will be more effective than the steps taken under Mr. Trump, though it remains to be seen whether they will slow cyberattacks by Russian operatives or Russia-linked cybergangs.
But analysts say it’s already clear that U.S. efforts — particularly economic sanctions and the sale of Javelin missiles and other weapons to Ukraine — under the past three presidents have impacted Mr. Putin’s decision-making. Without those moves, they say, Mr. Putin may have moved beyond Crimea and possibly mounted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“I think it dissuaded Russia from going further and being more belligerent,” said Mr. Jensen, the U.S. Institute of Peace analyst.