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Biden's early moves on Russia underscore his challenges

The Biden administration has already proposed a five-year extension of the last treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, announced an urgent investigation into a massive Russia-linked cyberattack, and demanded the release of Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexey Navalny.

Why it matters: Those three steps in Biden's first week underscore the challenge he faces from Vladimir Putin — an authoritarian intent on weakening the U.S. and its alliances, with whom he’ll nonetheless have to engage on critical issues.

  • “We’re going to be operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia — from the sharply competitive to the pretty nastily adversarial,” veteran diplomat Bill Burns told Axios last fall before being nominated to lead Biden’s CIA.
  • “I think it’s going to be very important to be direct about what we will not tolerate in that relationship,” added Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow. “I also think it’s going to be important — as adversarial as that relationship can be or is likely to be — to preserve some guardrails.”

Between the lines: That helps explain Biden’s decision to seek the longest-possible extension of the New START nuclear treaty, which was due to expire on Feb. 5.

  • It had been in limbo after the Trump administration rebuffed Putin’s proposal for a clean extension and attempted to negotiate a broader deal.
  • Biden’s team argues that it will be better able to navigate key points of contention with Russia if New START’s nuclear caps remain in place.

Driving the news: In addition to the SolarWinds hack on U.S. businesses and federal agencies, the administration’s in-tray already included Russia’s election interference, war in Ukraine, alleged bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and interventions in geopolitical hotspots around the world.

  • Then came Navalny’s arrest, three days before Biden’s inauguration, which former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul says has all the makings of “Biden’s first foreign policy crisis.”
  • “Whatever was in their transition documents, this is now front and center for them,” he told Axios.
  • Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken set a clear tone over Navalny’s arrest in his confirmation hearing last Tuesday, saying: “It’s extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man.”
  • When some 3,000 demonstrators across 100 Russian cities were arrested on Saturday for protesting Navalny's detention, the State Department quickly condemned the "harsh tactics" and vowed to "stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights."

The big picture: While Biden’s recent predecessors arrived in office with an olive branch for Putin, expectations are now very low on both sides of the relationship.

  • Biden’s team has ruled out an Obama-style “reset.” Meanwhile, Putin’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, expects “deeply hostile” relations with Biden's top officials, some of whom he accused of “Russophobia.”
  • Victoria Nuland, the hawkish long-time diplomat nominated to the number three role in the Biden’s State Department, is expected to be a key voice on Russia policy if confirmed.
  • For now, there are few channels of communication open. “Leave aside the policy — the mechanics of diplomacy between the United States and Russia really broke down in the Trump era,” McFaul says.

What to watch: McFaul says the coming confrontations with Putin over issues like human rights and democracy will "of course" make it more difficult to collaborate on key issues, like arms control or the Iran deal.

  • But the areas of potential cooperation with Putin have already narrowed to such an extent, he says, that "the agenda is much shorter and you have in the Kremlin a much more unwilling interlocutor.”

Go deeper: Tracing 20 years of Putin

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