POTUS Pokes the Bear: No Longer Servile, the US Stirs to Challenge Putin
It is hard to imagine that, faced with aggressive, relentless assaults on American elections by the Kremlin, evidence of Russian bounties placed on the heads of American soldiers in the Mideast and bare-knuckled moves to re-gobble Ukraine, Ronald Reagan would have kissed Vladimir Putin's posterior. There was a time -- lasting decades, in fact -- when an American president lavishing praise on a former KGB agent running a Russian police state would have been denounced by Republicans as either a dolt or a dupe. Conservatives would have called him a weakling, a sell-out and a threat to our national security. And they would have been right.
Times have changed, however, and dramatically so. During the four years of former President Donald Trump's most curious romance with Putin, siding with the Russian president in his conflict with America in ways by turns cringeworthy and stomach-turning, the Grand Old Party sided with Trump in siding with Putin against the USA, lending new meaning to the expression "Politics makes strange bedfellows."
The last administration and its supporters left American credibility on the ropes and reaching for smelling salts. Credibility shredded over four years cannot simply be stitched back together overnight. The new administration understands that restoring America's influence abroad requires an end to the coddling of Russia, and that end has begun. In his first trip to the State Department, President Joe Biden provided a read-out of his telephone call with Putin and delivered a pointed message. "I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor," said Biden in his speech at Foggy Bottom, "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. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia."
Those were mere words, but they were words Putin hasn't heard for quite some time. When the American intelligence community unanimously confirmed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election in order to elect Trump and defeat Hillary Clinton, Trump's announcement that he chose to believe Putin over his own government left one with two choices, each dispiriting: concluding that Trump was a nitwit or concluding that he was in the tank.
When Putin's government poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Trump's silence and solicitude encouraged the Russians to believe after Navalny recovered and returned to Moscow that they could imprison him without consequences -- and imprison him is just what they did. Biden has called Russia's oppression of Navalny what it is: an egregious human rights violation, the targeting of a political dissident for spotlighting Russian corruption. Biden called for Navalny's immediate, unconditional release. Seeking to galvanize a multilateral response to Russia, Biden urged the Munich Security Conference in February to confront "Russian recklessness," an effort he called "critical to protect our collective security." Within days, the European Union announced its imposition of sanctions on Russia in response to Navalny's jailing. Days later, the Biden administration announced its own set of sanctions against Russian companies and individuals, as well as other punitive measures. There is more to do, including using the presidential bully pulpit to shame Putin on the international stage, and the potential sanctioning of Putin cronies. The administration says that expanding its first round of sanctions is under review.
Biden's directness about Putin has been refreshing, though likely not to Putin. Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos last week whether he believed Putin was a killer, Biden replied, "I do," and said that Putin would "pay the price" for meddling in the 2020 election, which the intelligence community concluded earlier this month he had also clearly done. In retaliation, Putin recalled Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov back home to Moscow in diplomatic protest.
Ambassador Antonov should treat himself to a nice, long vacation with his family in Moscow and enjoy the home cooking. In the meantime, it is good to see that America is back.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.