Despite four years of sustained hysterics about the supposed Russian-compromised nature of his presidency, Donald Trump's administration carried out a variety of policies to shore up Europe’s eastern flank, bolster U.S. military strength relative to Russia’s, and weaken Russia’s coercive power generally. Yet six months into President Joe Biden’s term, we’ve seen the opposite effect: The sources of the taunts and tough-talking on Russia have been remarkably conciliatory to Vladimir Putin.
By waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline mere weeks before his meeting with Putin, Biden buckled. It is not just that he surrendered to Putin a monumental victory and the upper hand going into the June 16 meeting in Geneva. It is that the move reveals a profound error in Biden’s judgment about geopolitical realities and portends worse moves to come.
To appreciate why, some background is in order.
China is the United States’s No. 1 geopolitical foe. Its goal is to supplant the U.S. as the preeminent world power, and it has built an economy and military with this goal specifically in mind. Given the high stakes, the U.S. military is reorienting defense strategies to prioritize deterring China and to prepare to win a war in the Pacific against China if deterrence fails. Although Russia has neither the size of China’s military, the economy, nor its diplomatic cache, it is a major power, has the world’s largest, most diverse nuclear weapons force, and possesses sophisticated missile, cyber, and space capabilities. It uses those capabilities to undermine the United States and to weaken and divide NATO in the hope of destroying it altogether. Defense strategists across the political spectrum agree that, ideally, the U.S. should find a way to tamp down Russia’s adversarial behavior and even collaborate in ways that could weaken China’s advance.
That is, American policy toward Russia is part and parcel of the larger strategic challenge of preventing a usurpation of world-leader status by authoritarian regimes.
But Russia is proving rapprochement, or even a cooling of tensions, to be a chimera.
Just within the last year, Russia sought to divide Americans leading up to Election Day, increased its belligerence against Ukraine and the number of military forces on the border with its neighbor, conducted the largest cyberattack on record (SolarWinds), and was at the very least tacitly supportive of two major cyberattacks originating in Russia that halted the Colonial Pipeline and a major pork and beef supplier. Russia also poisoned with illegal chemical weapons and then arrested anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny.
And it did all this while undergoing a massive nuclear weapons modernization program and investing in novel nuclear weapons and issuing not-so-veiled threats against the United States and our NATO allies. If the disdain Russia has for Europe and America was not enough, Putin is not only uninterested in finding ways to collaborate with the U.S. to slow China's rise, he is slobbering at the prospect of a Sino-Russian alliance — not necessarily a formal alliance, but there is a growing military closeness and alignment that would hasten the end of the Pax Americana.
Fomenting division across the free world undergirds this approach. Russia’s very purpose in building Nord Stream 2 is to divide NATO. The pipeline runs under the Baltic Sea, from Russia’s Baltic coast to northeastern Germany, and will double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany. In doing so, it will avoid transit fees from Ukraine and will greatly increase Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and give Russia exploitative power over countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states, which are among the EU countries that oppose construction of Nord Stream 2.
Russia has weaponized its gas supply in the past, cutting off gas to Ukraine and much of Europe in 2006 and in 2009, and this month threatened to cut off energy to Ukraine. And despite Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau telling Polish media that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured him back in January that, regarding Nord Stream 2, “nothing will be decided about you without you,” the Polish government found out about the waivers through media reporting. By effectively greenlighting Nord Stream 2, Biden has left NATO more divided and its most vulnerable members weaker.
Biden has even said as recently as in March that he believes Nord Stream 2 is a “fundamentally bad deal for Europe.” Blinken gave the U.S. Senate a false sense of assurance that he was “determined to do whatever [he] can” to stop the pipeline and promised that Biden would “use every persuasive tool” that he has to do so.
So, what changed? Biden said he was waiving the sanctions in the interest of “rebuilding relationships with our allies and partners in Europe,” despite uncovering that the Switzerland-based company Nord Stream AG and its CEO, Matthias Warnig, a Putin ally and former officer in East Germany’s Stasi, were engaging in sanctionable activity. Biden, trying to play the role of inspiring leader, said at the meeting of the G-7, “I think we’re in a contest, not with China per se, but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.”
But we are in a contest with the CCP-led China, along with Putin’s Russia. We will not win through tough-talking communiques and smiling photo ops. And we will not win by turning our warfighters into squabbling, race-focused wokesters, well-read in the latest pop culture nonsense. We will prove out the superiority of the United States by building better, more lethal, and resilient weapon systems, by training a disciplined and unified fighting force with a warrior ethos, by strengthening U.S. sovereignty by bolstering our own industrial base, and by diligently working with nations that prefer a U.S.-led order to a China-led one.
If the goal really is strengthening alliances in Europe to help us deter and, if need be, fight and win, Biden should be leaning hard on Germany, even if doing so in a less brazen way than Trump had, to alter its direction. The rift in the U.S.-Germany alliance is not about the coarse manners of the previous reality-TV star president; the rift is because too many German elites are drifting eastward for the sake of a cheap personal buck and pulling at NATO’s seams in the process.
According to German intelligence, Russian espionage is as active in Germany as it was during the Cold War. In the most audacious example of how Russia has infiltrated German elites, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who immediately preceded Angela Merkel, joined the Russian energy giant Gazprom after leaving office. Gazprom holds a 51% stake in Nord Stream AG and has been described as a discriminating monopolist because it charges richer Western European countries less than Eastern and Central European countries.
Not only do the United States and NATO have a Russia problem, they have a Russia-influencing-Germany problem. This is not the time to relieve pressure on either Russia or the German elite’s enticement to Russian wealth. (It goes beyond Germany, too. Francois Fillon, the former French prime minister, is expected to join the board of directors of Russian state-owned oil group Zaroubejneft.)
After having previously called Putin a "killer" and saying he has no "soul," Biden walked back the harsh insults leading up to their meeting, calling him "bright" and "tough" and "a worthy adversary" and saying that Russia, like the United States, is a "great power." The summit between Biden and Putin ended in separate press conferences, and without resolutions to conflicts of interest. But it was a success for Putin, arguably before it started.
Giving in to Putin on Nord Stream 2 is not evidence that a sophisticated form of diplomacy is at play. It is evidence that Biden will not stand firm against Putin, and instead will try appeasement. Democrats and the media have been warning that we had a president who is effectively a tool of Russia’s efforts to weaken the West. If Biden continues down this path, they’ll be right.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics.
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