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ANALYSIS: Biden Talks Tough, But How Does His Stance On Russia Actually Stack Up To Trump?

(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Bradley Devlin General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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Despite being frequently characterized as a Russian puppet, former President Donald Trump was tougher on Russia in two vital policy areas than President Joe Biden has been so far.

Biden and Trump, to no surprise, have very different styles of conducting foreign affairs. Whereas Trump was oftentimes soft rhetorically on world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, the policies enacted by his administration were tough and sent a clear message. So far, Biden seems to be Trump’s opposite on this front. Biden has been tough on Putin and other adversarial leaders rhetorically, but his administration’s policies largely fail to send a similar message.

Biden has primarily focused on China and Russia to start his presidency on the foreign policy front. Rhetorically, Biden and his administration has taken a more adversarial tone towards these eastern powers than expected prior to him entering office. In early February, Biden delivered remarks from the U.S. State Department and claimed, “that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over,” in a clear swipe at Trump. Biden has even gone so far as to call Putin a “killer” without a soul during a phone conversation. (RELATED: Vladimir Putin Challenges Joe Biden To A Live Debate Over ‘Killer’ Comments)

The Biden administration’s tough talk hasn’t all just been empty words, though. Biden has backed up his rhetoric with some minor policies, predominantly the imposition of new sanctions.

On March 1, the Pentagon announced that it would be giving $125 million in aid to Ukraine in order to defend against an ever-more-aggressive Russia, which previously annexed Ukraine’s region of Crimea in 2014. 

Trump, too, gave military aid to the Ukrainians in order to defend against further Russian encroachment. In 2018, the Trump administration announced it would spend $200 million on military aid to Ukraine. In 2019, the Trump administration again announced Ukraine would be receiving military aid to the tune of $250 million — funds that would later become part of Trump’s first impeachment. He also pursued additional funding for stemming Russia’s influence in Syria as well as a $1.4 billion increase in European Deterrence Initiative, which seeks to confront Russian military aggression in Europe, according to NPR.

The very next day on March 2, the Biden administration announced it would be taking action against entities connected to the alleged attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s main political rivals. These sanctions targeted nine Russian commercial entities, three German entities, and one Swiss entity, as well as several members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The Biden administration’s move also included “mirroring” sanctions imposed by the European Union for the suspected attack on Navalny.

Subsequently, Biden signed an April 15 Executive Order that gave the U.S. Treasury Department a broad mandate to impose further sanctions on Russian entities connected to the SolarWinds hack in January. The order also directed the Treasury and State Departments to terminate U.S. visas of Russian nationals that fell under these sanctions and kick them out of the country.

The Trump administration was also fond of using sanctions in order to curb Russian influence or punish Russia for malign behavior. On 16 separate occasions, according to The Brookings Institution, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Russia in response to a variety of public and private activity originating from Russia, from financial data hacking schemes to election interference.

When juxtaposed with the actions of the previous administration, Biden’s sanctions, while worth mentioning, do not diverge that much from the Trump administration’s approach to Russia. Where Biden has diverged from the Trump administration’s policies,  the Russians have secured two major victories: the first is the extension of the The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START); the other is the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The Biden administration signed a five-year extension of the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia in early February. Signed during the Obama administration, the New START nuclear weapons treaty aimed at lowering the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and various deployment mechanisms the United States and Russia have. However, this treaty has been proven to be incredibly flawed, given Russia’s ability to strengthen their nuclear position relative to the United States through flawed counting rules and keeping nuclear weapons listed as non-strategic, according to The Heritage Foundation

The Trump administration was pushing to renegotiate the nuclear agreement in order to bring China to the table and curtail its nuclear build up, according to Foreign Policy. Russia also seemed to believe this was in their mutual interest, and would renegotiate in exchange for a one year freeze on nuclear stockpile buildups, Foreign Policy reported. However, Putin began wavering on this idea when he believed he could get a more favorable deal after a change in administration, which is exactly what Biden gave Putin when the U.S. extended the New START treaty without any major changes.

The Biden administration’s second major gift to Russia is his attempt to waive sanctions on the Russian company tasked with building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. During Trump’s tenure as president, according to the BBC, the United States put sanctions in place in order to delay if not prevent the pipeline’s completion. The pipeline would vastly expand the amount of gas Russia sends to Germany and the broader European Union under the Baltic Sea. With expanded supply comes expanded Russian influence in the European Union. What’s more, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would help Russia bypass several American allies traditionally used to transport Russian energy sources to Europe, especially Ukraine, as Russia has amassed larger troops near Ukraine’s border.

Despite Biden’s willingness to provide military aid to Ukraine and his administration’s talk of bolstering relations with countries on the European continent, Biden’s decision to waive sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline further demonstrates his unwillingness to take on Russia where it counts, isolates Ukraine, and could place other European countries under the thumb of Russia’s energy sector.