In late August 2016, Joe Biden was dispatched by the Obama administration to Europe to conduct an urgent diplomatic blitz. His choice of destinations—Turkey, Latvia, and Sweden—sent an unmistakable signal to the great power these nations ring: Russia.
During his swing through Sweden, Biden told reporters that the proposed Nord Stream II pipeline, which would transit Russian gas into Germany while circumventing Ukraine and potentially denying gas transit revenues to Kyiv, was a “bad deal for Europe.” On this, the Trump administration appeared to agree, as did the federal legislature. Over the next four years, Donald Trump himself hectored Germany over its continued support for this pipeline while augmenting U.S. natural-gas exports to Europe to offset the continent’s energy demands. Congress did its part, too, authorizing sanctions against entities that take part in the construction of or provide services for that conduit.
This bipartisan sense of purpose was reflected in a February 17 letter to the Biden administration in which congressional representatives from both parties pledged “to counter Russian malign influence, including by ensuring Nord Stream 2 is never completed.” Russia had resumed construction of that pipeline in January after a two-year pause, presuming perhaps that this administration would be friendlier toward its interests. But White House Press Sec. Jen Psaki insisted that the president’s thinking had not changed. “We continue to think that Nord Stream 2 is a bad project,” she said only last week.
But something changed. On Thursday, like a bolt from the blue, the Biden White House opted to waive sanctions against companies that participate in building this transit network. Members of Congress from both parties were incensed. America’s partners in Eastern Europe were unnerved. The Kremlin was elated. Even diplomats within the administration expressed their opposition to the move, but they were reportedly overruled.
Not so long ago, this episode would have been met with round-the-clock apoplexy from political observers in the press. Had this occurred just six months ago, it would have confirmed the assumptions shared by many political observers that Donald Trump harbored a soft spot for Vladimir Putin’s regime.
That anxiety, we were told, was fueled by a new understanding among Democrats that Russia was a genuine threat to American security. Moscow wasn’t pursuing expansionist policies in its “near abroad” only in response to U.S. unilateralism. The Kremlin wasn’t interfering in Western elections and deploying complex nerve agents against dissidents only because it had been antagonized by Western sanctions. The danger was real and only a president with unyielding resolve to contain the menace in Moscow could stop it.
But then, Joe Biden won the presidency. And all of a sudden, that sense of urgency melted away.
To be fair, this White House has not been permissive in its approach toward Moscow. But then, neither was the Trump administration. With the glaring exception of President Trump’s obsequious rhetorical overtures toward his Russian counterpart, the previous administration expanded the sanctions regime, expelled diplomats, appropriated diplomatic territory, and provided Ukraine with access to lethal arms. The Biden administration has proceeded apace, freezing a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe and sanctioning Russian entities linked to a recent cyberattack.
The difference between these administrations has not been their respective efforts to contain Russian adventurism and punish Russian transgressions. The conspicuous distinction between then and now is the total disappearance of any sense of exigency around the threat posed by Moscow.
The “Solar Winds” hack that led the Biden White House to impose new sanctions on the Russian Intelligence Services was a sophisticated operation that compromised dozens of government agencies, including the Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and Energy Departments. It infiltrated Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco; sprawling firms with multibillion-dollar defense contracts. That infiltration gave Russian entities the ability to steal, alter, or even destroy data, degrade networks, and disrupt operations with reasonable deniability. And you probably didn’t hear much of anything about it.
You might have heard something about a menacing buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border back in April, and the last update from the front indicated that Russia was pulling back from the brink by withdrawing its nearly 100,000 combat-ready forces. Except, Russia didn’t withdraw its troops. Almost every Russian soldier deployed to the Ukrainian border in April is still there. And according to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Moscow has accelerated a campaign of issuing Russian passports to residents of Ukraine’s Donbass region, where Russia has prosecuted a low-intensity proxy conflict against government-backed forces since 2014. Biden’s decision to give the green light to Nord Stream II only heightens Ukraine’s sense of vulnerability, and Kyiv will do what it must to preserve its sovereignty with or without American guarantees.
Likewise, the last you probably heard about Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan was that it was all a hoax. Moscow was not guilty of placing a bounty on the heads of American soldiers in Central Asia, as low-confidence intelligence estimates suggested in 2020. Republicans celebrated, as it cleared Trump of negligence by failing to respond to those reports. Democrats didn’t much mind, either. Joe Biden wants out of Afghanistan, and anything that complicates that objective isn’t welcome. But as a declassified National Security Council statement has since made plain, Russian operatives remain implicated in the effort to destabilize the region. What’s more, Russian intelligence operatives are linked to the disruption of Montenegro’s elections in 2016, “assassinations across Europe,” and deadly explosions at ammunition depots in Czechia and Bulgaria.
Sure, these events generated media attention, but they didn’t merit the kind of saturation coverage that all things Russia received in the Trump years. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the news media’s interest in Russo-American security challenges was a domestic concern; that’s a problem. Taking the pressure off is how you get about-faces like the one we’re seeing Biden pull with regard to U.S. energy and security policies in Europe.