It’s the first foreign-policy test of the Joe Biden presidency. The dissident Alexei Navalny, fresh off of recovering in Germany from an assassination attempt by poison, courageously returned to Russia and was promptly jailed. Protests erupted, and the Kremlin responded with a violent crackdown. Yesterday, a Russian court sentenced Navalny to more than two years in a penal colony. It’s a fraught situation — and one which will set the tone for the Biden administration’s Russia policy and treatment of human rights abuses abroad.
The best response is for Biden to practice what he preached on the campaign trail: rally America’s allies in a new diplomatic push to pressure the regime of Vladimir Putin.
Launching such an effort will be a challenge for the still-understaffed administration. But now is the time. Navalny has captured the attention of the world. This is especially true in Europe, where business interests in favor of economic engagement with the Kremlin are robust and the default instinct of many foreign ministries is to calm tension and mediate between the United States and Russia. For the EU and its capitals to turn the screws on Moscow, they require not just U.S. nudging but a feeling of genuine outrage at the Kremlin.
Such outrage existed in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine and was responsible for downing the commercial airliner MH-17, killing 298 innocent civilians. Together, the United States and the EU — two of the three largest economies in the world — imposed strong sanctions against Russia. There was similar alarm in Europe in 2016 and 2017 when Russia interfered in the U.S. and French elections. Yet the Trump administration did nothing to respond, depriving the EU of the impetus required to galvanize its 27 member states to action.
Europe’s outrage at the Navalny situation provides the Biden administration with an opening to clear the first hurdle of any effective Russia strategy: forging a united front between America and Europe. In October, while the Trump administration remained silent about Navalny’s poisoning, the EU took the extraordinary step of imposing sanctions on six high-ranking Russian officials. These measures — whose targets included Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and Sergei Kiriyenko, deputy chief of staff to Putin — bar the officials from traveling to the EU and freeze their assets within EU jurisdictions. That the EU could garner unity for such a bold move — without any support from the United States — demonstrates the seriousness with which European capitals view Navalny’s treatment.
But mounting a response that resonates in the Kremlin will take stronger action — and critically, leadership from the new administration in Washington. To start, the United States should swiftly catch up with its European allies, imposing a slate of sanctions that mirrors the one the EU rolled out in October. Next, the Biden administration should hold expert-level talks with EU officials to develop a menu of sanctions options that could be enacted quickly depending on the Kremlin’s subsequent moves. This menu should range from additional sanctions against Putin’s kleptocratic network to more serious measures — for instance, asset freezes on one or more state-owned Russian banks or fossil fuel companies. The Kremlin benefits greatly from its access to the West, as the oligarchy that props up the regime uses that access to park the wealth it has stolen from the Russian people. Cutting off that access is thus a sensible way for the United States and Europe to impose costs on the Kremlin.
At the same time, U.S. officials should immediately set to work with EU and UK counterparts to strengthen regulations that impede kleptocratic financial flows. The recent Pentagon spending bill included a provision banning anonymous shell companies, giving the United States credibility to push its allies.
Building transatlantic unity on Russia policy now would pay dividends for the Biden administration for years to come. Governments can’t just set and forget sanctions. This is what happened after Trump’s inauguration, in 2017, as U.S. and EU sanctions remained stagnant and thereby lost their efficacy. Companies changed their names and created subsidiaries, oligarchs found new ways to hide assets, and the economy adapted. By forging unity with the EU early on sanctions, the Biden administration can put in place a system in which U.S. and European officials regularly plug loopholes so sanctions retain their punch.
As the new administration launches this effort, it also needs to be prepared for Russia to respond. The SolarWinds hack has likely given Russia leverage and an ability to retaliate. It’s unclear where it may have penetrated and what damage it could inflict. In its first salvo of sanctions, the Biden administration shouldn’t throw the kitchen sink at Russia. The United States and the EU must leave itself with an ability to significantly tighten and escalate sanctions should Russia hit back. Major sectoral sanctions—such as blacklisting central nodes of Russia’s financial industry—should be kept in reserve. This will force the Kremlin to think twice about how it reacts, knowing that the West could further escalate.
Entering such a tit-for-tat escalatory engagement with Russia, a nuclear power, is fraught. But the Kremlin has erased any restraint that previously existed in its global engagement. It uses chemical weapons to assassinate opponents, invades its neighbors and conducts cyberattacks on civilian systems. Outside of invading a NATO member state, there are seemingly no redlines that the Kremlin won’t cross. That’s why establishing some semblance of deterrence is so critical. And as the Putin regime remains dependent on its access to the West, the U.S. and Europe have to tools to do that through economic pressure and without starting a war
Sanctions and revamped financial regulations are by no means a panacea. No one should expect them to bring down the Kremlin. They don’t have that power. The purpose is to impose costs, enforce norms, and incentivize the Kremlin to change its behavior. Transatlantic sanctions in the wake of protests would hit the regime at a critical moment. Now is the time for a concerted transatlantic effort.
View original post