In the run-up to meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit planned for next month, President Biden has shown he is willing to sanction Moscow for cyberattacks and election interference even as he proposes more “thoughtful dialogue.”
“We want a stable, predictable relationship,” Biden said last month when imposing the new sanctions.
But tensions in Washington over Russia policy have made it harder for Biden to reach his goal.
“Having anything other than hawkish views in public on Russia issues became risky,” said Samuel Charap, who was an adviser on arms control issues in the Obama administration.
Case in point: an aggressive social media campaign when the White House was considering hiring Matthew Rojansky, director of Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, for an important job at the National Security Council.
Rojansky was accused of being on the Kremlin’s payroll, and being anti-Ukrainian. (Rojansky declined comment for this story.)
Thomas Graham, who was a top Russia adviser to George W. Bush, said Rojansky’s views were mischaracterized — and his character smeared.
“There’s a group of individuals who jump on the social media and try to destroy or undermine the integrity of the people who oppose their views on Russia and use that as a way of trying to control the debate,” Graham said.
Graham helped draft an open letter signed by dozens of former officials who found the criticism outrageous.
“The personal attacks on Mr. Rojansky were intended simultaneously to damage Mr. Rojansky’s reputation and to shut down policy debate,” the authors wrote. “We see all of this as very dangerous.”
Biden is not the first president to struggle with the foreign and domestic politics involving Russia.
In 2001, President George W. Bush famously said he looked Putin in the eye and got a sense of his soul. Former President Barack Obama called for a reset with relations with Russia.
And then came former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly pushed back against intelligence that showed Russia tried to help him win office.
“I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said, during his 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Russian analysts say four years of questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia made an already difficult issue much more fraught.
Charap said the campaign against Rojansky is just one example of a bigger issue. He said there needs to be a fulsome debate at this critical juncture in the relationship with Russia — especially with the Biden-Putin summit just around the corner.
“This is really about the public policy debate and whether we can have open debate and discussion, and people with a variety of views are not stigmatized for having those views,” he said.