I’m Peter Spiegel, the FT’s US managing editor, filling in for Edward Luce, who is on a much-deserved vacation. Much-deserved and well-timed, since the two of us have been engaged in a weeks-long private spat over his take on Joe Biden’s Russia policy and Ed’s departure means I can finally hit back in public — and he’ll be unable to respond.
Let me start with an anecdote. A few weeks ago, I travelled to Greece to participate in one of the first big conferences on the European circuit to hold sessions in person. It soon became clear that I wasn’t the only vaccinated person who made that choice: the event’s main dinner — held under the stars on the roof of Athens’ city hall — was also attended by a handful of European commissioners and regional prime ministers, all of whom sat at the table of honour with their host, the Greek capital’s charismatic mayor.
More tellingly, however, was the slightly-less-glamorous table nearby. That one included Athens’ vice-mayor, a respected but less-than-famous FT journalist, and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader who had been living in exile in Vilnius for almost a year.
None of those attending that night could have known the significance of Tsikhanouskaya’s decision to travel to Athens with a small retinue of aides. A week later one of them, flying back to Vilnius, would find his Ryanair flight diverted to Minsk — and then detained and paraded on Belarusian TV with what appeared to be bruises on his head and face.
Still, Tsikhanouskaya’s relegation to the also-ran table was, to me, symbolic of the west’s approach to Russia. Vladimir Putin has invaded his neighbours (Georgia, Ukraine); poisoned his political enemies (Sergei Skripal, Alexei Navalny); hacked western election campaigns (Hillary Clinton, Emmanuel Macron); and propped up authoritarian despots (Bashar al-Assad, Alexander Lukashenko). And yet the west always seems ready to quickly normalise relations with the Kremlin, relegating those bad acts to a sort of collective amnesia. Those who stand up to him and his thuggish allies are seated at the second-tier table with the likes of me.
Joe Biden campaigned as someone different. He and his top foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken — now secretary of state — vowed to return human rights and democratic values to the heart of American foreign policy after four years of amoral Trumpism and eight years of Kissingerian realpolitik under Barack Obama. But when I asked one of Tsikhanouskaya’s aides what the Biden administration had told them since taking office, he had to sheepishly admit nobody had been in contact. Can you really be putting democratic values back at the heart of American foreign policy and not even reach out to one of the world’s most important fighters for democracy, one whose husband is still in prison for her temerity?
Instead, Biden offered Putin that which he most covets: a place back on the international stage, with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with a summit with an American president. And the timing could not have been worse, coming as it did when Putin’s standing at home was under real strain for perhaps the first time because of the Kremlin’s persecution of anti-Putin activist Navalny.
Biden sought to argue, counter-intuitively, that Putin’s misbehaviour was the very reason to hold a summit: he would tell the Russian president to his face just how opposed the US was to his treatment of Navalny, and his hacking of US elections, and his stifling of a free press (his support for Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown against Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters appears to have not made the agenda).
But what more does a foreign leader have to do to get on Biden’s democracy and human rights blacklist? Time and again, American presidents have sought to find accommodation with Putin in order to “manage” the relationship. But time and again, that policy has failed. He has not stopped invading his neighbours. He has not stopped poisoning opposition figures. He has not stopped interfering in the elections of the US and its European allies. Perhaps it is time to change the policy.
Ed rightfully argued that at least Biden did not repeat the rhetorical mistakes of his predecessors, who sought a “reset” with the Kremlin despite the presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil (Obama) or claimed to look into Putin’s eyes and get a sense of his soul (George W Bush).
But Biden’s decision to reward Putin with a summit so early in his presidency appears to have opened the floodgates to the worst instincts of America’s allies. Already, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Macron have begun agitating for an EU summit with Putin, only to have it rightfully blocked by Poland and the Baltics, who have to live with Putin’s misconduct in their backyards.
In foreign policy circles, it seems widely accepted that Biden’s restraint towards Putin is a direct product of his decision to more aggressively confront China. But General Mark Milley, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, once called Russia the single biggest threat to American security because of its still-significant military capabilities and its clear intent to destabilise the US and its allies. Russia, not China.
Rana, I hate to drag you into a spat between two of your dearest colleagues, but I’m going to ask you to make a call. Who’s right, me or Ed? Can Blinken and Biden, who as a candidate wrote so eloquently about the need to strengthen our democracies at home and abroad, credibly claim to be advocates for democracy and human rights while failing to aggressively confront Putinism in all its guises?
A note to readers: Swamp Notes will be off on Monday due to the holiday weekend. We’ll be back in your inbox next Friday. Edward Luce is on leave and will return in mid-July.
Peter, first, let me say that no table with you could possibly be second rate (and I’m not just saying that because you are the boss). Secondly, the good news for me is that I can hedge and say, you are both right — at least in terms of your political reading.
Peter, I absolutely agree with you that today’s Russia really can’t be part of any “alliance of democracies” that Biden is trying to create. To say otherwise is to make a farce of the entire concept. I understand that Europeans (particularly Germans) feel in a vice between the US and the Russia-China alliance; as I wrote this past week, they don’t want to make any diplomatic choices yet because they aren’t sure whether the Biden administration is just a weigh station on the route to more toxic America populism.
However, as I wrote in two columns from a few weeks ago, I have very little patience for the hypocrisy of Macron cozying up to Putin, the EU cutting preferential trade deals with China, or Germans complaining about “Buy America” while they cut the Nord Stream pipeline deal with Russia. All of it reflects a core truth, which is that we are at a geopolitical turning point the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Nixon administration — but I won’t say more about that here, since it’s the topic of my own Monday column! How’s that for a diplomatic pivot?
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘America (finally) gets an industrial strategy’: “I appreciate that Peter has moved beyond thinking that industrial policy should only be used in wartime but the Operation Warp Speed was a form of warfare, just not in the traditional sense and as such it was entirely reactive. Industrial policy should be an integral part of national security. It is not to create national champions but rather to ensure that there is a nation. It should not be intended to ensure the lowest cost. The drive to the lowest cost is the doorway to exploitation and the destruction of competition. The sooner we recognise that the better.” — Mark Goldman, London, England
In response to ‘The well-earned demise of UBI’:“Is it not at least possible the UBI would, like free school meals, be a kind of marker, rising out of which to earn serious money might be quite difficult? Though a country in which just shy of a fifth of school children are eligible for free school meals certainly needs to act rather than fiddle.” — Marian Hobson, Cambridge, England
Catch up on previous Swamp Notes on FT.com.