A bipartisan push on Capitol Hill to force the White House to expel hundreds of Russian diplomats has backed President Biden into a corner, fueling doubts about his promise to get tough on the Kremlin and raising questions about whether the U.S. has squandered leverage to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Lawmakers are pressing Mr. Biden to retaliate diplomatically after Russia virtually banned the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from hiring Russian and third-country employees, forcing the American outpost to let go of more than 180 staffers. The unusually aggressive step underscored just how low relations between the two Cold War-era foes have fallen.
So far, the lack of a strong response from Washington has given fresh fuel to critics who contend that Mr. Biden so far hasn’t lived up to his campaign promise to crack down on Mr. Putin and dissuade Moscow from needling the U.S. whenever and wherever possible. Democrats in the 2020 campaign had sharply criticized President Trump for what they said were repeated failures to hold Mr. Putin to account.
Some foreign policy specialists say there’s a very simple reason why it’s unlikely the administration will follow through on Congress’s demand and kick Russian diplomats out of Washington. Rather than getting tough on Mr. Putin, they argue, the administration instead finds itself somewhat beholden to Russia for counterterrorism operations, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and on other fronts.
The Kremlin, which announced Thursday it will host a delegation from the new Taliban government in Afghanistan later this month and is the major military power in the Central Asian states that surround Afghanistan, has added leverage as the Biden team tries to pick up the pieces after the Afghanistan debacle.
“The problem is the Biden administration is now indirectly reliant on not escalating with Russia because of the situation in Afghanistan,” said Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The U.S. needs to have access, engagement, with Central Asia and with those countries. Russia can turn that on and turn that off.”
“On Iran, this administration remains very desperate to secure a new nuclear agreement and, historically, it has been Russia that provided diplomatic cover for Iran on the international stage,” Mr. Coffey said. “Right now, the Biden administration has kind of painted itself into a corner.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, on a European trip this week, told reporters in Paris he had spoken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about ways to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that both Washington and Moscow signed by which President Trump repudiated in 2018. Moscow, which has strong relations with Tehran, is likely to be a key go-between in any resumption of talks and the signing of a new deal.
“We had an opportunity to compare notes on where we stand and where we hope to go,” Mr. Blinken told reporters, while Mr. Lavrov said in Russia that talks to revive the accord “should be resumed as soon as possible.”
And the Pentagon confirmed last week that U.S. military leaders have had conversations with their Russian counterparts about a potential offer for American military forces to use Russian bases in the region. Such an arrangement, while wildly controversial, could provide the U.S. with a badly needed base of operations to launch strikes against terrorist targets in and around Afghanistan following the American withdrawal from that country in August.
The current U.S.-Russia dynamic hardly resembles the world sketched out by Mr. Biden during the 2020 race, during which he blasted Mr. Trump for allegedly cozying up to Mr. Putin and vowed that he would take tough action and deliver real results. The administration has leveled new economic sanctions on top Russian officials and sent major new weapons shipments to Ukraine, but those steps have hardly stemmed malign behavior from Moscow that has brought relations with the West to a three-decade low.
“We have to realize the relationship between NATO, the transatlantic family, and Russia is at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a major policy speech at Georgetown University this week.
Rhetorically, Mr. Biden also has harshly condemned Mr. Putin for last year’s poisoning and detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, numerous major cyberattacks on U.S. companies and federal agencies tied directly to Moscow, and on other issues.
But even some of Mr. Biden’s fellow Democrats want more concrete actions, not just words. In a letter to the president this week, 17 senators — including nine Democrats — pushed the administration to respond directly to Russia‘s diplomatic moves. Among others, the letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairs of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, respectively.
Republican Sens. James Risch of Idaho and Marco Rubio of Florida, ranking GOP members on those panels, also signed the letter.
“This abrupt, unilateral action by the Russians jeopardizes U.S. Embassy Moscow’s daily operations and the State Department’s ability to meet the consular needs of Americans who live in, work in, or travel to Russia,” reads a portion of the letter. “It also undermines the ability of embassy personnel — including the ambassador — to do their critical work representing the policy interests of the United States in Moscow.”
“We ask that your national security team take immediate, concrete steps to provide U.S. Embassy Moscow with the staffing and support it needs by taking responsible, proportional, and immediate actions in response to the provocations undertaken by the Russian government,” the letter concludes.
State Department officials condemned Russia‘s forced staffing cuts at the American embassy but would not say whether further action is under consideration.
“As a general matter, we do not comment on congressional correspondence. Russia‘s measures have had a negative impact on the U.S. mission to Russia‘s operations, safety of our personnel, as well as our ability to engage in diplomacy with the Russian government,” a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times. “We support our diplomatic mission in Russia and continue to engage the Russian government on these matters.”
The U.S. government, the spokesperson added, “reserves the right to take appropriate response measures to Russia‘s actions.”
NATO on Thursday took its own action against Moscow, expelling at least eight members of Russia‘s diplomatic mission in Brussels who NATO officials say were actually undeclared intelligence officers.
Top Russian officials condemned the move and said it’s merely an effort by the West to cast Moscow as the world’s leading villain, and that the step will hurt any effort to cool tensions between the two sides.
“There is a glaring discrepancy between NATO officials’ statements about their wish to normalize relations with our country and real actions,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “These actions, of course, leave no room for illusions regarding the normalization of relations and the resumption of the dialogue with NATO.”
Mr. Peskov also dismissed the congressional push to cut Russia‘s diplomatic presence in Washington as counterproductive and “rather emotional.”
“By all appearances, they don’t even know how many Russian diplomats are working there,” the Kremlin spokesman told the TASS news service.