Biden on Russia: Imposing Another Round of Sanctions, but Expecting Different Results?

Written by: Justin Lange, Associate Editor

            It was made evidently apparent to me, and from a rather young age I might add, that there is an important difference to be found between “acting” and “being.” For me, this became clear when I found out that Toby Ziegler didn’t write the President’s speeches, and that Tony Soprano didn’t run North Jersey.[1]

            This, however, raises an important question in more recent times: that is, what exactly is Joe Biden’s stance on Russia? Now, let’s walk down memory lane for a moment, because for now-President Biden, it’s been quite the journey to say the least. Biden was of course Vice President in the Obama Administration, where I think we can say without much controversy that Russian policy was inconsistent at best.

            Biden was Vice President when the Obama Administration tried its “reset” in the U.S.-Russian relationship.[2] He was similarly Vice President when President Obama told the world in a televised presidential debate that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”[3] This, of course, in response to the totally outrageous assertion by President Obama’s challenger in simply referring to Russia as a “geopolitical foe.”[4]

            On the flipside, Biden was also Vice President when Russia successfully interfered with the 2016 presidential election.[5] He then spent much of the next four years complaining about President Trump’s alleged relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.[6] He, without question, made this issue a central theme in his campaign for the presidency in 2020. He railed against reports that President Trump took no action in spite of intelligence reports of Russia placing bounties on U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan.[7] He even called President Trump “Putin’s puppy” in a presidential debate.[8] After taking office, he claimed in a foreign policy speech to have “made it clear to President Putin, in manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens—are over.”[9] He even went so far as to say “I do” when asked by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos whether he thought Putin was a killer.[10]

Even more recently, the President has raised his concerns in phone calls with Putin, and even proposed a summit between the leaders to discuss issues.[11] In response to the Russian government’s poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Biden Administration announced economic sanctions.[12] And, on April 15th, the Biden Administration announced additional sanctions in response to U.S. intelligence finding Russia was likely behind the Solar Winds data hack.[13]

            Yet, what exactly do these sanctions mean? Research studies conducted by the Atlantic Council and the Brookings Institute have found that sanctions are only effective “when combined with broader diplomatic and political efforts.”[14] Further, “Sanctions alone are unlikely to achieve desired results if the aims are large or time is short.”[15] And, what evidence do we have that sanctions have worked against Russia in the past? Clearly, the issue is murky at best, with uncertain effects and debatable consequences.[16]

Biden is neither the first, nor will he be the last, to impose sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Russia continues to challenge U.S. foreign assets and policy, not just through the Solar Winds hack and election meddling, but moreover through massing troops on the Ukrainian border in response to the West’s dragging of its feet in admitting Ukraine into NATO.[17]

            In my view, sanctions against Russia have been and will likely continue to be ineffective in accomplishing U.S. foreign policy aims. Tired reiterations of Einstein’s supposed definition of insanity certainly apply here.[18] So, then why impose sanctions? Well, it’s all about that difference between “acting” tough, and “being” tough.


[1] See, e.g., The West Wing (NBC television broadcasts 1999 – 2006), and The Sopranos (HBO television broadcasts, 1999 – 2007), respectively.

[2] Mikhail Zygar, The Russian Reset That Never Was: How palace intrigues in the Kremlin, the death of Qaddafi, and war in Ukraine ushered in a new era of mistrust between Russia and the United States under Obama, Foreign Policy (Dec. 9, 2016), available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/09/the-russian-reset-that-never-was-putin-obama-medvedev-libya-mikhail-zygar-all-the-kremlin-men/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[3] Transcript of final 2012 presidential debate, CBS News (Oct. 23, 2012), available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-of-final-2012-presidential-debate/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[4] Id.

[5] Abigail Abrams, Here’s What We Know So Far About Russia’s 2016 Meddling, Time (Apr. 18, 2019), available at https://time.com/5565991/russia-influence-2016-election/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[6] Stephen Collinson, The riddle of Trump’s relationship with Russia, CNN (Dec. 22, 2020), available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/22/world/meanwhile-in-america-december-21/index.html (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[7] Maggie Miller & Rebecca Kheel, Biden administration says with “low to moderate confidence” Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties, The Hill (Apr. 15, 2021), available at https://thehill.com/policy/defense/548427-biden-administration-attributes-afghanistan-troop-bounties-to-russia (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[8] Carol E. Lee, Josh Lederman, & Mike Memoli, Biden called Trump “Putin’s Puppy.” The president-elect may put Moscow on a tighter leash, NBC News (Dec. 22, 2020), available at https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/biden-called-trump-putin-s-puppy-president-elect-may-put-n1251983 (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[9] Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World, The White House (Feb. 4, 2021), available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/remarks-by-president-biden-on-americas-place-in-the-world/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[10] Anna Chernova, Zahra Ullah, & Rob Picheta, Russia reacts angrily after Biden calls Putin a “killer”, CNN (Mar. 18, 2021), available at https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/18/europe/biden-putin-killer-comment-russia-reaction-intl/index.html (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[11] Grace Segers, Biden proposes summit with Putin to discuss “full range of issues”, CBS News (Apr. 13, 2021), available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-putin-russia-summit-propsoal/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[12] Natasha Bertrand, Biden administration sanctions Russia over Navalny poisoning and arrest, Politico (Mar. 2, 2021), available at https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/02/biden-administration-sanctions-russia-over-navalny-imprisonment-472397 (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[13] Alexander Smith, Kristen Welker, Andrea Mitchell, & Abigail Williams, Biden calls for de-escalation with Russia following sanctions, proposes meeting with Putin, NBC News (Apr. 15, 2021), available at https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/02/biden-administration-sanctions-russia-over-navalny-imprisonment-472397 (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[14] Brian O’Toole, Sanctions are effective – if used correctly, Atlantic Council (Nov. 4, 2019), available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/sanctions-are-effective-if-used-correctly/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[15] Richard N. Haass, Economic Sanctions: Too Much of a Bad Thing, Brookings Institute (Jun. 1, 1998), available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/sanctions-are-effective-if-used-correctly/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[16] Andrew Chatzky, Have Sanctions on Russia Changed Putin’s Calculus?, Council on Foreign Relations (May 2, 2019), available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/sanctions-are-effective-if-used-correctly/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[17] Alexander Smith & Matthew Bodner, Russia amasses troops near U.S. ally Ukraine. But what is Putin’s goal?, NBC News (Apr. 14, 2021), available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/sanctions-are-effective-if-used-correctly/ (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

[18] Sarah Pruitt, Here Are 6 Things Albert Einstein Never Said, History (Sep. 20, 2018), available at https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said (last visited Apr. 15, 2021).

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