Report

Will Biden Blink Over Navalny?

A deadline for sanctions hangs over preparations for Biden’s first meeting with Putin.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Peace activists wearing masks call for more progress in nuclear disarmament.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate on Jan. 29 to call for more progress in nuclear disarmament. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced the long-awaited meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which will be held in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16.

Relations between the two countries have reached their lowest ebb since the Cold War. To make matters worse, there’s also a looming June 2 deadline for a second round of sanctions from the Biden administration over Russia’s poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 

A first round of sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, which compels the United States to respond to chemical weapons use, was announced in March. As Russia has made no effort to assure the world it will not use these weapons again, a second round of sanctions is required by law.

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced the long-awaited meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which will be held in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16.

Relations between the two countries have reached their lowest ebb since the Cold War. To make matters worse, there’s also a looming June 2 deadline for a second round of sanctions from the Biden administration over Russia’s poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 

A first round of sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, which compels the United States to respond to chemical weapons use, was announced in March. As Russia has made no effort to assure the world it will not use these weapons again, a second round of sanctions is required by law.

Psaki said the administration hoped the summit would restore “predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship.” But if the administration comes down hard on Russia before the summit, it could derail the meeting.

If the sanctions are seen as too mild, the administration risks accusations of going soft on Putin as the Russian leader turns the screws on his domestic opposition and takes ever more audacious steps on the world stage. 

“There’s a tension between wanting to punish Russia for its use of chemical weapons but, at the same time, allowing for the relationship to improve between the countries on strategic issues,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University. 

Trying to forge a working relationship with Moscow while checking the Kremlin’s nefarious activity overseas has been a challenge for successive administrations.

Although Biden is the first president not to pursue a reset with Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000, the administration has taken fire from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress over its recent decision not to sanction Nord Stream AG, the company building the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The pipeline, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which is almost 95 percent complete, will run from Russia to Germany. Critics fear it will increase Moscow’s stranglehold over European energy markets and deprive Ukraine of much-needed transit revenues. 

Biden defended his decision on Tuesday as a bid to protect the U.S. relationship with allies in Europe, which was strained during the Trump administration.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out against it while the Congressional Ukraine Caucus urged the administration to reconsider.

Republicans have also attacked Biden for failing to sanction Nord Stream AG.

“This type of weakness only encourages Putin’s aggression,” Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, and John Barrasso said in a joint statement on May 17. “He’s not paying a significant price for his malign activities and with decisions like these, the Biden Administration is only encouraging him.”

The second round of sanctions over Russia’s use of the nerve agent Novichok to poison Kremlin-critic Navalny last August will be subjected to increased scrutiny in the wake of the Nord Stream decision. 

“The challenge with this is that it is as much about perception as it is about the actual policy,” said Brian O’Toole, a former senior sanctions official in the Obama administration. 

The chemical and biological weapons act, passed in 1991, has only been invoked four times in history: once over North Korea and Syria’s use of chemical weapons, respectively, and twice over Russia’s use of Novichok to poison former spy Sergei Skripal in 2018 and Navalny two years later. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump ejected more than 60 Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning, banning U.S. banks from providing loans to Russia and preventing U.S. financial institutions from buying non-rouble-denominated Russian bonds in the primary market. The Trump administration also considered banning flights to the United States by Russia’s de facto national airline Aeroflot, according to a former senior Trump administration official. The Trump administration also considered banning flights to the United States by Russia’s de facto national airline Aeroflot, according to a former senior Trump administration official. They held back, the official said, over concerns that retaliatory moves by Moscow could harm U.S. businesses. 

The first round of penalties in response to the attack on Navalny was announced on March 2 and included personal sanctions on seven senior Russian officials believed to have been involved in the decision to poison and later imprison the opposition leader, who was arrested upon his return to Moscow in January, as well as penalties on several entities involved in Russia’s chemical weapons program. 

O’Toole said Menendez, a strong supporter of the act, would be an important bellwether to watch. “If Menendez is angry after round two, that’s going to be more difficult for them to manage from a PR perspective,” he said. 

The act provides the administration with a menu of options for the second round of sanctions, which include prohibitions on bank loans, export restrictions, and the downgrading of diplomatic relations. It also allows waivers that would give the president significant latitude to tailor or hold back sanctions altogether. 

One scenario, experts said, is the Biden administration could quietly let the June 2 deadline slip by and wait to see how the meeting with Putin pans out before imposing further sanctions. The Trump administration blew past its deadline over the Skripal poisoning, waiting more than six months to announce a second round of sanctions.

A State Department spokesperson said the administration would comply with its legal obligations under the act. 

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security, said she expected the administration to continue to toe a firm line with Moscow. “I don’t think they’re going to back down just because of an upcoming meeting,” said Kendall-Taylor, who briefly served as senior director for Russia and Central Asia on Biden’s National Security Council. 

“I think it is a tight spot, but it’s not the administration’s doing. It’s a result of Russia’s actions,” she said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.