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Biden’s Russia Moves Signal a Different Kind of Reset

Biden’s call for an intelligence review into recent Russian actions marks a clean break from the Trump era.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden orders an intelligence review of Russian actions, the United States is reconsidering sanctions amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the Central African Republic declares a 15-day state of emergency.

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Biden Takes First Steps on Russia Policy

As Joe Biden begins to settle into the Oval Office, the contours of his Russia policy are beginning to come into view.

On Thursday, Biden directed his intelligence chief Avril Haines to conduct a full review of a host of alleged Russian transgressions in recent months. According to the Washington Post, Haines will be charged with opening investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2020 election, the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, rumored Russian bounties placed on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and the hacking of government service provider SolarWinds.

There’s been some room for cooperation, too. The same Post report indicated that Biden would seek to continue the current pact with Russia that limits nuclear weapons, known as New START. The agreement is due to expire on Feb. 5, and Biden wants to extend the deal by 5 more years.

2016, forever. How Biden treats Russia over the next four years could provide an insight into how much Democratic party politics influences his foreign policymaking. Wariness of Russia has only increased since allegations of interference surfaced in the 2016 presidential election: a Pew survey taken in 2019 found that 65 percent of Democrats said Russia was a major threat, compared with just 35 percent of Republicans.

It’s not just grassroots activists that have Russia on their mind. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob a “gift to Putin” from Donald Trump. Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has speculated that Putin may have had a hand in the assault, asking in a recent podcast whether Trump had been on the phone with Putin before he addressed supporters on Jan. 6.

Radio silence. Perhaps preempting a Biden backlash, Moscow has already made moves to disrupt some U.S. operations in Russia. The New York Times reports that U.S. government-backed broadcaster RFE/RL may be kicked out of the country as the Kremlin takes a more aggressive stance against “foreign agents.”

Biden’s challenge. Writing in Foreign Policy, David J. Kramer laid out the steps Biden should take in confronting Putin’s Russia. “Essentially,” Kramer writes, “the Biden administration should develop a policy of containment.”

The World (Mostly) Welcomes Biden

A new report from YouGov and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung shows a world broadly welcoming the arrival of Biden as U.S. president. Kenyans seem the most excited for the next four years, while Russian, Brazilian, and Turkish citizens show the most disapproval. Within the United States, the political divide highlights the challenges facing Biden’s unity message. In Foreign Policy, Cailey Griffin and Christina Lu break down the report’s big questions.

What We’re Following Today

Biden’s first call. U.S. President Joe Biden makes his first call to a foreign leader since assuming office today when he speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The two will already have one disagreement to smooth over: Biden’s decision to revoke a crucial permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The call will be a chance for Trudeau to distract from an embarrassing political scandal at home, after Julie Payette—whom the prime minister appointed as governor general in 2017—resigned her position following allegations of workplace harassment.

Sanctions under review. U.S. President Joe Biden has called for a review of “existing United States and multilateral financial and economic sanctions” currently in place in order to assess whether they are hindering the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The declaration was part of a national security directive signed by Biden on Thursday that also includes an analysis of current health diplomacy efforts and a promise to join the World Health Organization’s COVAX global vaccine distribution facility.

Any softening of sanctions would likely benefit Iran, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had complained in December that financial sanctions were preventing the country from paying into COVAX. The move appears to bow to pressure within the Democratic party, as reported by FP’s Jack Detsch in November.

Carnage in Baghdad. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a double suicide bomb attack that killed at least 32 people in Baghdad on Thursday. More than 100 others were wounded in the worst bombing to hit the city in three years. The attack took place in the same public square where an even deadlier bombing occurred in 2018.

As Mina Al-Oraibi wrote in Foreign Policy on Thursday, the attack “serves as a reminder that Iraq needs to be on the Biden administration’s agenda, even though it does not appear to be a priority at all.”

Keep an Eye On

Olympic hopes. The Japanese government has been forced to deny reports from a British newspaper that the Tokyo Olympics—already postponed from last summer—would be cancelled. Citing an unnamed senior government official, The Times reported that the Japanese government had already privately conceded that the games would not take place next summer, prompting a rebuke from organizers. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has promised the Olympics will “be a symbol of humanity overcoming the novel coronavirus.”

CAR declares state of emergency. The Central African Republic has instituted a 15-day state of emergency to deal with rebel groups following their attempted seizure of the capital Bangui earlier this month. CAR faced increased violence both before and after the Dec. 27 presidential election as the United Nations reports more than 32,000 residents have fled the country. U.N. envoy Mankeur Ndiaye warned of a “serious risk of a security and peacebuilding setback” if more peacekeepers were not added to the mission. Seven U.N. troops have already been killed in the latest round of violence.

Portugal votes for president. If recent polls are accurate, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is headed for a landslide victory in the country’s presidential election on Sunday. The vote will be seen as a test of the durability of Portugal’s far-right, as opposition candidate André Ventura attempts to bring the election to a second round by keeping Rebelo de Sousa, a social democrat, below the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory.

Odds and Ends

Although the infection numbers show children have been largely spared in the coronavirus pandemic, a recent study has highlighted an unusual impact the last year has had on children’s eyesight. A study of Chinese schoolchildren found that the prevalence of myopia (or near-sightedness) in 2020 increased by 400 percent in 6-year-olds, 200 percent in 7-year-olds and 40 percent in 8-year-olds compared to previous years.

Scientists in an ophthalmology journal blamed the sudden spike in myopia on an increase in indoor activities—including more screen time—as a result of coronavirus lockdowns. They encouraged policymakers to consider children’s need for outdoor play in future lockdown considerations.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn