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How Will Biden Handle Russian Relations After Suspected Hack?

Dec 26, 2020
Originally published on December 28, 2020 12:55 am

President-elect Joe Biden's promise of a firm response to the latest hacking attack attributed to Russia signals a much tougher assessment of Vladimir Putin than President Trump's deferential attitude.

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Cybersecurity experts say it could take years to figure out how much damage was caused by the latest hack attributed to Russia. This adds to an already long list of problems between Washington and Moscow, problems that President-elect Biden will soon inherit. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen with a look at the options for the incoming administration.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump likes to say he's been tough on Russia. There have been sanctions, but his record is one of public deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let me tell you, we have been very rough, but at the same time, we get along. I like Putin. He likes me. You know, we get along. It's - wouldn't you say it's smart to get along?

KELEMEN: Trump said he believed Putin when he denied interfering in the 2016 election. Now Trump won't blame Russia for the latest hack either, though some of his top aides have. President-elect Biden says he's seen no evidence that the cyber intrusion is under control.

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JOE BIDEN: This assault happened on Donald Trump's watch when he wasn't watching.

KELEMEN: Biden says Russia has a long history of, quote, "reckless, destructive cyber activities." And he says this will be an overwhelming focus of his administration. He says there have to be rules of the road.

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BIDEN: Getting together with our allies to try to set up an international system of what constitutes appropriate behavior in cyberspace and get us all to get to the point where we hold - all hold any other country liable for the breaking out of those basic rules.

KELEMEN: Working with allies to counter Russia will be key, says Fiona Hill, who served on Trump's National Security Council and who testified in Trump's impeachment. She says the Russians managed to pull off this major cyber-espionage operation while the U.S. was focused on election security.

FIONA HILL: What I've certainly learned from my time and interacting with the Russians is the element of surprise is everything, and they usually have it, rather than we have it.

KELEMEN: Hill says America's response has to be more than the usual sanctions.

HILL: Too often, we just throw on a sanction, and we also don't give any kind of sense about how we might pull back from this or change course if they stop doing what they're doing or if they actually do something else.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. must be clear about messaging and be able, with allies, to take the Russians by surprise. But Russia has become a toxic political issue under Trump.

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TRUMP: Russia, Russia, Russia, the impeachment hoax and so much more.

ANGELA STENT: We haven't had a Russia policy for four years.

KELEMEN: That's Angela Stent of Georgetown University.

STENT: We've had the president who wanted to improve ties to Russia, who wanted to make a deal with Russia but was unable to. And then you had the rest of the executive branch and the Congress that took a very tough stance. And so you had rafts of sanctions and diplomatic expulsions, but otherwise, really not much happened.

KELEMEN: When the U.S. and Europe blamed Russia for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K., the Trump administration responded by expelling some Russian Embassy and consular officials. They were accused of spying. Fiona Hill says the U.S. message to Russia was clear.

HILL: We want to get rid of these guys, who are carrying out all kinds of brazen operations, but we want diplomats. Send more diplomats. Well, we haven't seen them doing that, which leads you to believe that they're more putting emphasis on the espionage side of things and the dirty tricks than they are on actual diplomacy.

KELEMEN: And Russia capped the number of American diplomats who could serve there. Because of that, the Trump administration recently announced that it's closing its last two remaining consulates outside Moscow, one permanently in Vladivostok. That's unfortunate, says Angela Stent.

STENT: If you want to try and reach the Russian people and have a better sense of what's happening there - you know, it's the biggest country in the world - you have to have a presence in the eastern part of the country.

KELEMEN: Stent says one place to start is to revive professional diplomacy at the State Department, which Biden has pledged to do.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.