Joe Biden: I was clear with president Putin, that we could have gone further but I chose not to do so. I chose to be proportionate.
Tanzina Vega: The Biden ministration is striking a very different tone from the Trump administration and its relationship with Russia. On Thursday, president Biden announced sweeping new sanctions against Russia over its alleged interference in the 2020 election, cyber attacks and mounting aggression near the Ukraine border. The administration is also expelling 10 Russian diplomats from the United States.
Joe Biden: United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship.
Tanzina Vega: The question now is how effective increased sanctions against Russia will be. I'm Tanzina Vega, and that's where we start today on The Takeaway. Natasha Bertrand is White House correspondent at Politico covering national security and foreign policy. Natasha, welcome back to the show.
Natasha Bertrand: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina Vega: Michael McFaul is US ambassador to Russia, or was US ambassador to Russia from January, 2012 to February, 2014 and a professor of political science at Stanford University. Michael, always good to have you on.
Michael McFaul: Glad to be here.
Tanzina Vega: We'll start with you, Michael. As a former ambassador to Russia, when you heard about Biden's sanctions, your immediate reaction?
Michael: I thought it was a great move. I thought it was smart to bundle their actions. They're not only where they're sanctioned, but there were the expulsions of so-called diplomats, but really Russian intelligence agents. They also responded to a variety of things, particularly the solar winds cyber attack and the election of interference from last year. I thought they were trying to bundle together a response to the past to put a period to it all and now move forward to the future and that's exactly what the president outlined in his remarks yesterday.
Tanzina Vega: Natasha, in terms of some of the details about the economic sanctions, what do we know so far?
Natasha Bertrand: The most significant economic sanctions that the administration imposed were essentially to stop financial firms in the United States from dealing in newly issued Russian debt. That restriction will go into effect on June 14th in order to allow institutions to understand the ban and prepare for it. It's an effort to exploit Russia's economy right now in order to put pressure on Moscow. It's more of a warning right now than a very sharp penalty because it doesn't stop US institutions from dealing in previously issued Russian bonds and it doesn't apply to foreign banks or investment firms the way that the US extended the recent sanctions on Iran.
It is a significant move when it's paired with all of these other sanctions against Russian intelligence officers, companies that have supported Russia's malign activities, people that were involved in the annexation of Crimea. It is a sign to Putin and the Kremlin that the United States is prepared to do things that, maybe not right this moment, but that will negatively affect Russia's economy and an ability to be a player on the international stage and on the international markets.
Tanzina Vega: Michael, once again, as we know, there's a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine. I would imagine that is also playing into Biden's calculus here.
Michael McFaul: Well, the Biden administration is very worried about that buildup. It's the largest buildup of Russian troops on the border there, since the war began in 2014. I want to emphasize that there already is a war ongoing. This would just be an escalatory measure. It was very striking to me yesterday in the rollout, and especially in the president's remarks, that they did not link any of these measures that they announced to what is going on in Ukraine. I think that was very deliberate, that they're trying to say this is in response to past behavior. Behavior, by the way, that took place during the Trump administration and now we want to move forward in a different way.
The vice president when I worked with him, the president said we are proportionately responding to what they are doing, and we want to be able to engage when it's in our interests. He talked about a meeting with Putin and he talked about beginning strategic stability talks, and they also hinted, as Natasha just rightly pointed out, that this gives them the power. There's a new presidential executive order to escalate sanctions if there would be further belligerent actions by Vladimir Putin.
Tanzina Vega: We also mentioned the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats from Washington. Michael, you said that they were almost Russian intelligence agents really. Natasha, what do we know about that expulsion so far? How significant was that in DC?
Natasha Bertrand: They were people that were in the United States in a way that was inconsistent with their status here. That's according to senior administration officials who were speaking to reporters yesterday. They wouldn't go into detail about the identities of these Russians, only to indicate and imply that these were individuals that were acting in an intelligence capacity for the Russian government. This has happened before this is often a way of sending a signal to the Russians or to any other government that their malign activity won't be tolerated.
Of course it prevents the Russians from carrying out certain activities in United States by limiting their intelligence gathering capabilities. 10 is not a ton. Back when Sergei Skripal, the Russian defector, was poisoned in the UK by the Russian government services, there were about 30 intelligence officers that were expelled from the United States. It's still a signal and it's still an important move. The question is, what are the Russians going to do in response? They're likely going to expel US diplomats from Russia in response to this activity, which could of course limit our own intelligence gathering capabilities there.
Tanzina Vega: Michael, your thoughts on that? I'm wondering whether or not this package as we're discussing is going to further, we know that Russia is not happy about this. Is there going to be some sort of retaliation do you suspect?
Michael McFaul: Absolutely. That's what I predict. It'll be interesting to see if it's proportional or whether it's escalatory, but I have no doubt that they will expel 10 American diplomats in a tit for tat reaction. The Russian press today and surrogates for Putin, and yesterday, all criticized. They called it illegal, as you would expect. I think the real interesting response will be when Putin finally responds. Does he escalate or does he say, "Now we're even keel. Here's our response, and now I'm going to accept your invitation to meet." That, I think, is what the administration is looking to know what the real reaction is.
I want to be clear,, I think it was a mistake actually to offer a summit. It sends the wrong message. You build up, you act like a bad actor in the international system and Ukraine, and then you're offered a summit. I would not have done that were I in the government.
Tanzina Vega: You've worked in this capacity before Michael. We know that president Trump had a summit of sorts or a visit with president Putin. Why would the Biden administration offer that as well?
Michael McFaul: Well, first a couple of things I hope they don't go back to Helsinki where president Trump and president Putin met. I think that will go down in history as one of the worst, if not the worst summit in American history. Remember, that's when, pressed by at the press conference, Trump was asked, "Do you support your intelligence community's assessment about what Russia did interfering on our elections in 2016, or do you agree with Putin?" He said, "I agree with Putin." That said, I want to be clear. I think it's very important to meet with leaders, including leaders of your adversaries.
The worst thing in the world in diplomacy is to have a conflict based on misperceptions or bad information. The meeting should happen, but what happens when you say it's a summit and it's a standalone summit as opposed to meeting on the sidelines of a multilateral gathering? You're right, I used to work at the White House and planned these summits for Barack Obama before I went to Moscow. Once you do that, then guess what? We're all watching, Natasha is going to be there. We're all going to be looking at tea leaves. There's not going to be deliverables. There's not going to be a breakthrough.
You're setting yourself up, I think, for expectations that can't be met, but they've said it, Putin has to accept it and we'll see what happens. My one caveat would be, I would want them to meet with president Zelensky from Ukraine first, before they meet with Vladimir Putin. Remember, the second peach impeachment was all about putting conditions before Mr. Zelenskyi, before he would have his oval office meeting. I think to clean up that really bad history and put US Ukraine relations back on more stable footing he should finally have an oval office meeting with president Biden.
Tanzina Vega: Natasha, some really good points that Michael raises there. First of all, I want to go back to the relationship in the Helsinki Trump Putin summit where, Michael, it's a good reminder there that president Trump roundly said he did not trust his own national security intelligence folks. Natasha, what is the Biden administration approach to national security and intelligence right now? How is that relationship being, I guess, repaired, if you will, in light of these new sanctions and new information about Russia?
Natasha Bertrand: The administration has really emphasized stability and predictability in its relationship with Russia. That's what it wants to go back to. There are some people who would call it a reset. I don't think the Biden ministration would want to call it a reset because that is something that the Obama administration tried with Russia early on and it didn't work. I think their approach more, it's pretty consistent with past administrations with the exception of Donald Trump himself, which is to hold Russia accountable and in the areas where it's acting in aggressive way or out of step with international law and work with Russia in other areas like nuclear treaties and perhaps counter-terrorism in certain parts of the world, although that has not really panned out.
A particularly important issue for Joe Biden is climate. They think that the Russians have an important role in that area as well, which is why Russia was invited to this climate summit that the president is hosting next week. I think that they just want to have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, but whether that's possible is another question entirely. There are many, many analysts and experts on Russia who say that, part of Putin's whole strategy is to be unpredictable. It remains to be seen whether this is going to work. I think that offering a summit at this point where Russia is clearly saber rattling and threatening to invade Ukraine, frankly, was surprising to a lot of people.
Tanzina Vega: We'll see what happens next. Natasha Bertrand is White House correspondent at Politico covering national security and foreign policy, and Michael McFaul is a former US ambassador to Russia. Thanks to you both for joining me.
Natasha Bertrand: Thank you.
Michael McFaul: Thank you.
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