WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden says the days of the U.S. “rolling over” to Russian President Vladimir Putin are gone as he called for the immediate release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
During his first visit to the State Department as president on Thursday, Biden issued his strongest condemnation of Putin as large protests have broken out throughout Russia following the jailing of Navalny. Thousands of protesters have been arrested.
The new American president was also seeking to make clear to the world that he’s making a dramatic turn away from Putin following the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, who avoided direct confrontation and often sought to downplay the Russian leader’s malign actions.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from a five-month convalescence in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning, which he has blamed on the Kremlin.
“I made it clear to President Putin, in a 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 election, cyber attacks, poisoning its citizens– are over,” said Biden, who last week spoke to Putin in what White House officials called a tense first exchange. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.”
Biden’s comments on Russia came as he asserted a broad reset of American foreign policy, including reversing Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops stationed in Germany, ending support for Saudi Arabia’s military offensive in Yemen and promising to support LBGTQ rights as a cornerstone of diplomacy.
Using the visit to outline how his foreign policy would differ from that of his predecessor, Biden called for a return to the “grounding wire of our global power.” He sought to buck up the diplomatic corps, many of whom were discouraged by Trump’s policies and tone.
“America is back. Diplomacy is back,” Biden told State Department staff before delivering his foreign policy speech. “You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it. We’re going to rebuild our alliances”
With Biden’s most public diplomatic effort of his young presidency, White House officials said he was hoping to send an unambiguous signal to the world that the United States is ready to resume its role as a global leader after four years in which Trump pressed an “America First” agenda.
He offered a list of issues where he said he would reverse Trump’s policies or forge different priorities, including scrapping the former president’s plan to withdraw about 9,500 of the roughly 34,500 U.S. troops stationed in Germany. The European nation hosts key American military facilities like the Ramstein Air Base and the headquarters for U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.
Trump announced the pullback after repeatedly accusing Germany of not paying enough for its own defense, calling the longtime NATO ally “delinquent” for failing to spend 2% of its GDP on defense, the alliance benchmark.
No reductions or changes have been made to U.S. troop levels since Trump’s announcement. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hinted at a likely reconsideration of the order in a conversation with his German counterpart last week, chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Biden also signed a presidential memorandum Thursday that addresses protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals worldwide. The memorandum, which builds off guidance the Obama administration issued in 2011, directs State Department officials and other federal officials working abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts promote and protect LGBTQ rights.
Biden also announced plans to increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States to more than eight times the level at which the Trump administration left it. Trump drastically reduced the cap to only 15,000.
Biden’s plan would raise it to 125,000, surpassing the ceiling set by President Barack Obama before he left office by 15,000. Biden, through executive order, also called for rescinding Trump-era rules that resulted in excessive vetting of applicants, expanding capacity for adjudicating applications for refugee applications, and other steps.
Mark Hetfield, president of the Maryland-based refugee resettlement agency HIAS, said the announcement won’t lead to overnight changes but applauded Biden’s order as a “head to bottom review of the program so that America can once again lead by example on protecting refugees.”
Biden, by contrast, chose longtime confidant Antony Blinken to be his secretary of state, aiming to reinvigorate an American diplomatic corps that had been depleted and demoralized under four years of the Trump administration.
He was greeted by employees eager to hear that diplomacy has returned to the top of the presidential agenda and that the expertise of long-serving foreign service officers will be valued.
“I promise I will have your back,” Biden told the department staff. “And I expect you to have the back of the American people.”
Although Biden’s first nominations and appointments to senior positions at State have trended heavily toward political appointees, the president and Blinken have pledged to promote career staffers.
To that end, the Biden announced he was appointing a longtime U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Tim Lenderking, as his special envoy in Yemen. The move comes as Biden is searching for a diplomatic end to the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign that has deepened humanitarian suffering in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.
Lenderking, a career foreign service member, has served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The State Department visit comes after Biden moved on Wednesday to extend the last remaining treaty limiting Russian and American stockpiles of nuclear weapons, acting just two days before the pact was set to expire. It also follows days after a coup in Myanmar that has emerged as an early proving ground of Biden’s approach to multilateralism.
A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered Navalny to prison for more than two and a half years, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. Biden again called for Navalny’s release.
“Mr. Navalny, like all Russian citizens, is entitled to his rights under the Russian constitution,” Biden said. “He’s been targeted, targeted for exposing corruption. He should be released immediately and without condition.”
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.