Biden Picks a Pointless Fight with Russia

The Russian government is responding angrily to Biden’s derisive comments about Putin:

The Kremlin has reacted angrily to US President Joe Biden’s remarks that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is "a killer," calling the comment unprecedented and describing the relationship between the two countries as "very bad."

U.S.-Russian relations have been deteriorating steadily over the last ten years, and it always seemed unlikely that Biden would improve them. Now there will be even less of a chance that Biden can work constructively with his Russian counterpart. The president’s blunt answer to a rather silly question from George Stephanopoulos has further damaged the relationship to neither country’s benefit. Anatol Lieven observed recently that this is a “completely unnecessary confrontation with Russia” at a time when the U.S. needs Russian cooperation on some important issues. Lieven cites U.S. reentry into the JCPOA and extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan as his examples of issues where Russian cooperation could be very valuable, but he could have added new negotiations on future arms control agreements as well. Making progress on any one of these becomes much more challenging when our president is gratuitously insulting theirs. For an administration that prides itself on practicing diplomacy, they have a funny way of showing it.

It is true that the Russian president is responsible for killing critics and dissidents, but this is unfortunately true of quite a few leaders aligned with the U.S. Putin is a killer, but then by the same token Egypt’s Sisi is a mass murderer. Biden’s lame excuse for letting Mohammed bin Salman off the hook for ordering Khashoggi’s death in the same interview calls attention to this obvious double standard in how our government treats and talks about different foreign leaders. Biden said:

Not the crown prince because we have never, that I'm aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person. And -- and -- ostracized him.

The U.S. doesn’t have an alliance with Saudi Arabia, but even if it did this would be an unacceptable evasion. The circumstances of the Saudi case are unusual in that the crown prince and his agents murdered a U.S. resident. There is no real question about the crown prince’s responsibility, and he is only de facto ruler. If this isn’t an occasion to penalize a high-ranking official in a client state, what would be?

It would make more sense to apply the same standard in all cases. It would be more effective to apply pressure to U.S. clients when the U.S. has significant influence with them. It would be wiser to avoid antagonizing the leadership of a major power when the U.S. gains nothing from doing so. The U.S. should be using leverage with its client states to advance our interests and seeking to reduce tensions with other major powers wherever possible. Biden seems to be doing the exact opposite in his first few months in office, and U.S. foreign policy will suffer as a result.