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In A Response To Navalny's Arrest, Clues To Biden's Russia Policy

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Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny is escorted out of a police station in Khimki, outside Moscow, on January 18.

Less than two hours after Aleksei Navalny was detained at passport control at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, the man who will hold one of the most important positions in the new White House made a statement on Twitter:

"Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable," Jake Sullivan, who will become President Joe Biden's national security adviser after the January 20 inauguration, wrote. "The Kremlin's attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard."

Sullivan's expression of support for the Russian anti-corruption activist was followed a few hours later by a statement from the departing U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who has frequently bashed Moscow on its human rights record, arms-control violations, and other issues.

But the speed with which a top official of the incoming Biden administration offered a public statement on Navalny, who was detained and jailed after returning to Russia for the first time since being hospitalized for exposure to a powerful nerve agent from the Novichok group, was itself unusual.

Moreover, Sullivan hadn't even formally started his job yet.

Incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan was quick to comment on Navalny's arrest.
Incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan was quick to comment on Navalny's arrest.

Add to that the fact that the Biden administration has already pledged to take a different course from the departing administration, where President Donald Trump's conciliatory remarks often clashed with otherwise tough talk and punitive sanctions from other U.S. government agencies and officials, including Pompeo.

"The incoming Biden administration has long made it clear that it would pay more attention to human rights than Trump has. So the Biden team was ready for" Navalny's arrest, Thomas Graham, the top Russia official in the White House under President George W. Bush, said.

"We can expect more criticism of Russia's human rights record, but that will come with an offer for serious dialogue on strategic stability, as part of a policy that will likely be billed as 'principled pragmatism' with Moscow," he told RFE/RL by e-mail.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 18, Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state, appeared to mock the Kremlin for its heavy-handed treatment of Navalny, and appeared to suggest his case would be a priority.

“It is extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes. And Mr. Navalny is a voice, I think, for millions and millions and millions of Russians, and their voice needs to be heard in Russia,” he said.

“I would say more broadly…the challenge posed by Russia across a whole series of fronts is also one that is more urgent,” Blinken said. “This is very high on the agenda for an incoming administration.”

During a hastily organized hearing at a suburban Moscow police station the morning after his detention, Navalny was ordered held for 30 days pending a court ruling on whether he violated terms of his parole while he was recuperating in Germany. The parole condition related to an earlier conviction on financial fraud charges he contends were fabricated.

Ever defiant, Navalny has called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest.

Even before Navalny's detention, Biden's advisers had suggested the case might be a priority. In September, in the heat of the U.S. presidential election campaign, after Germany confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok-like substance while traveling in Siberia, Biden himself bashed Moscow, calling the poisoning "outrageous" and "brazen." Trump, meanwhile, dismissed the German conclusions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials have long displayed open disdain for U.S. statements on Russian policies, domestic or foreign; the case of Navalny, whose name Putin refuses to utter, is no exception.

That stance will likely harden further, something that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested in remarks on January 18 as Navalny was facing the makeshift hearing.

"Putin's playing a game of chicken right now with the new Biden administration. In many ways, they are walking into their first major foreign-policy crisis," Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in a radio interview. "And he's waiting to see, do they just put in a few sanctions and then move on to other things, or do they do something radically different?"

Past Is Future?

Among the administration officials whose portfolios will include Russia policy are several veterans of President Barack Obama's administration, when the White House took a more openly confrontational approach toward Moscow.

That includes the nominee for the director of the CIA, William Burns, who served as ambassador to Russia in 2005-08 and as the No. 2 official at the State Department in 2011-14, under Obama.

And the person nominated to be undersecretary of state for political affairs, a post Burns has also held, was Victoria Nuland, whose Russia and Ukraine work during the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv irked the Kremlin.

"The United States can seize the moment of renewal at home and stagnation in Russia to stretch out a hand again. Putin may not want or be able to take it. But the Russian people should know that Washington and its allies are giving him and Russia a choice," Nuland wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs in June.

Then-Assistant Secretary Of State For European And Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland speaks to the media during a press conference in Kyiv in April 2016.
Then-Assistant Secretary Of State For European And Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland speaks to the media during a press conference in Kyiv in April 2016.

A spokesman for the Biden administration's transition team told RFE/RL that Sullivan's tweet was the only statement the incoming team would be making for now.

Pavel Koshkin, a senior research fellow with the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, predicted the Biden administration would be tougher and more intransigent toward Moscow, but also try to find ways to improve relations. "However, it will be extremely difficult, because today Russia is seen as a hostile nation and a troublemaker rather than as a friend or a problem-solver," he said in an analysis published last month by the Washington-based Wilson Center.

"Specifically, Washington will still view Russia as one of the key, though irresponsible, stakeholders in the international arena, including in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This means that the United States will try to hold Russia accountable for its foreign and domestic policy," he wrote.

Trust But Verify

As U.S.-Russian relations have continued to spiral downwards, and the Trump administration added yet more layers of sanctions on Russian individuals and companies, there's been building pressure among Russia and foreign-policy experts in Washington to try and find some way to engage with Moscow.

The easiest and most immediate way is likely to be extending New START, the last major arms-control agreement capping the two countries' nuclear arsenals, multiple experts have said. The treaty expires 16 days after Biden is inaugurated unless it is extended by mutual agreement.

While the Trump administration, which pulled the United States out of two arms treaties involving Moscow, has given mixed signals about how it wanted to deal with New START's expiration, the Biden administration has signaled it was open to an immediate short-term extension. The Kremlin has said similar things.

"We will have to look at extending that treaty in the interest of the United States," Sullivan told CNN on January 3.

Another urgent issue the Biden administration will grapple with is the massive recent hacking of U.S. federal agencies. Initial U.S. intelligence reports have pointed to Russian intelligence as the culprit. And the war in Ukraine, pitting Russian-backed militants against Ukrainian government forces, is nearing its eighth year.

William Burns attends a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2019.
William Burns attends a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2019.

Observers say a key question is whether the Kremlin, and the Biden White House, will compartmentalize subjects -- Navalny's arrest, for example -- from another.

"The Biden administration can do both things at the same time, as long as it approaches both issues with care and direction. The Russians are not going to reject renewal of New START or the launching of serious, sustained talks on strategic stability simply because of human rights criticism," Graham told RFE/RL.

However, the Navalny case has greater importance also because of the use of Novichok, a Soviet-designed nerve agent that is now prohibited under the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia is a signatory to. Reporting by RFE/RL and other news organizations have pointed to the possibility that Russia has a secret, undeclared chemical-weapons program.

"Navalny's poisoning will be, at least for the Americans, a matter relevant to strategic stability, because it gets at the issue of Moscow's commitment to honor the treaties that it signs," Graham said. "That said, excessive, gratuitous criticism of Russia's human rights record will poison the atmosphere for any other conversations."

Still another signal that the Biden administration is moving to embrace a more pragmatic approach appeared in a paper published by the Washington-based Center for a New American Security on January 14.

The paper argued that Washington should focus on how Russia and China are increasingly aligned, particularly in their disdain for U.S. foreign policy, and that U.S. policy makers should, among other things, try to drive a wedge between them.

Six days earlier, its lead co-author, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, was announced by Biden's team as the incoming Russia officer for the White House National Security Council, which is to be headed by Sullivan. Previously, she was a top Russia officer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the Obama administration.

"The United States should seek to change Russia's calculus such that Moscow views some cooperation with the United States and Europe as possible and preferable to its growing subservience to China," she wrote. "The United States should monitor and plan for, create headwinds to, and -- where possible -- pull at the seams in Russia-China relations."

Kendall-Taylor did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.

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