By Lara Seligman
Four days before President Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the outgoing vice president, Joe Biden, was in Ukraine — his sixth visit in seven years — to deliver a rousing farewell speech.
“You’re fighting both against the cancer of corruption, which continues to eat away at Ukraine’s democracy within, and the unrelenting aggression of the Kremlin,” he told local leaders, politicians and parliamentarians in Kyiv, the capital.
“It’s imperative that you continue to strengthen all of your anti-corruption institutions to root out those who would return Ukraine to rule by cronyism and kleptocracy,” he added.
If Joe Biden wins in November, he would sharply increase shipments of lethal weapons to Ukraine in an escalation of the Obama administration’s policy toward the country, his top foreign policy aides tell POLITICO.
Specifically, Biden would send weapons that are critical to defending against Russian coastal attacks such as anti-ship missiles and patrol boats, his aides said. Increasing lethal aid would be just one part of a “holistic” approach to pushing back harder on Russian influence in Ukraine, which would include continuing to send U.S. military trainers and stepping up efforts to urge political and economic reform, they added.
“We can give Ukraine all the Javelin missiles we want, but if Russia has political influence in that country through various corrupt relationships, then [they] are walking in through the back door while we’ve got our eyes glued to the front door,” said Mike Carpenter, a top foreign policy adviser to Biden and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, the Balkans and Eurasia policy.
“We have to promote Ukraine sovereignty in a holistic way, which means both military support and security assistance, but also helping Ukraine beat back this — growing, by the way — Russian covert influence within its politics,” Carpenter said.
As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was one of a few officials urging a more robust response after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. He was the administration’s primary emissary to Kyiv, diving into the conflict in a way that burnished his statesman credentials. He visited the country six times and spent hours on the phone with its leaders. He spearheaded efforts to send American forces to train Ukrainian fighters and prodded top officials to root out corruption.
The Obama administration refused to send Javelin antitank missiles to Kyiv, but did authorize small shipments of lethal arms to the fighters, such as shoulder-fired rocket launchers.
Carpenter drew a sharp contrast between President Donald Trump’s approach to Russia and that of a President Biden, particularly where Ukraine is concerned. He condemned Trump’s “signaling that Ukraine security is contingent on them doing us political favors,” referring to his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which resulted in Trump’s impeachment.
Rather, Trump should have put in place “the capabilities that Ukraine needs to defend itself because that’s the right thing to do, and because that’s going to defend them from further Russian incursions and aggression.”
Carpenter also condemned Trump’s frequent praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “terrific guy,” inviting Russia back into the G7, and failing to push back on intelligence reports that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential elections and offered and paid bounties to militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Weeks after the initial report of the bounties, there is still “no indication that there has even been that leader-level communication, let alone the development … actual consequences for this, and that is flat-out dereliction of duty,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s top national security aide from 2013 to 2014, and chief foreign policy adviser to 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
While Carpenter said he can’t speak to the veracity of the intelligence, if Biden were in office the first thing he would likely do is call Putin and tell him to “cease and desist immediately.”
“What the vice president would do is at the highest levels reach out to Putin and say we have information that you are doing this and if you don’t stop then there is going to be an escalating series of costs,” Sullivan said.
The next step would likely be imposing “consequences” on Russia, for example, changing military posture in the Baltics or the Black Sea, imposing sanctions on Russian individuals or state-owned financial institutions, the aides said.
The overall Biden approach to Russia would likely be focused on four “pillars,” Carpenter said: Building deterrence and defense capabilities with U.S. allies, including shoring up the NATO alliance after Trump “gutted” it; imposing immediate costs on Russia for its aggressive action; working to reduce U.S. and allied vulnerability to Russia’s nonmilitary action, such as financial coercion and cyber attacks; and having dialogue with Moscow on arms control and crisis management.
Carpenter condemned Trump’s “policy toward Russia that is based fundamentally on an appeasement of Putin, a desire to have as close of a relationship as possible with Russia in the face of very aggressive Kremlin foreign policy around the world, from Libya to Syria to Afghanistan.”
Building a constructive dialogue with Moscow on arms control would likely be a particular focus of a Biden administration, Carpenter said. A President Biden would likely extend the expiring New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which caps the production of nuclear weapons. He would also likely look to include the Chinese in a new version of the agreement in the future — something Trump has indicated he will do — but he cautioned that the Trump administration’s efforts to do so now is “highly unrealistic and frankly duplicitous” because “they know that’s not going to happen.”
A Biden administration would also focus on mitigating the effects of Russian cyber attacks and information warfare, including sending Moscow a stronger message that these efforts won’t be tolerated, Carpenter said.
“We really haven’t taken any steps over these last three-and-a-half years since we learned of what Russia did in 2016 to plug some pretty enormous vulnerabilities that we have,” Carpenter said, noting that the U.S. still allows anonymous shell companies to operate across the country, and turns a blind eye to Russia, China and other nations laundering “dirty money” into the U.S. political system.
Rather than lumping Russia and China under a single banner, as Sullivan said Trump has done with the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, Biden would likely separate the two and develop distinct approaches.
“Just kind of saying … ‘we’ve got to deal with Russia and China’ is the wrong way to think about it,” Sullivan said. “The nature of China’s economic and technological challenge to the U.S. is different from the more asymmetric, military challenge [from Russia.]”
Carpenter criticized the Trump administration for declaring in the strategy that it would contest Russian and Chinese influence around the globe, but then failing to act when the two nations violate international norms.
“The words are empty if they are not followed up by action,” he said.
In conjunction with developing a new strategy, which is due to Congress in 2022, a Biden administration would likely launch a review of the military’s posture worldwide to look at redistributing American presence, Carpenter said.
Biden sees 21st century foreign policy strategy as “a competition between liberal democracy and authoritarian oligarchies, which describes Russia and China but also Maduro’s Venezuela, and a number of other states that are challenging us interests around the world including Iran,” Carpenter said.
The Biden team was also critical of the current administration for what it sees as lumping Russia and China together in the National Defense Strategy when they require distinct approaches. “Just kind of saying … ‘we’ve got to deal with Russia and China’ is the wrong way to think about it,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s top national security aide from 2013 to 2014, and chief foreign policy adviser to 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “The nature of China’s economic and technological challenge to the U.S. is different from the more asymmetric, military challenge [from Russia.]”