Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “killer” who “will pay a price.” Leaving Afghanistan by a May 1 deadline will be “tough.” And America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia will “change” even though the US didn’t directly punish the crown prince believed to be responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Those were the main three foreign policy takeaways of President Joe Biden’s wide-ranging interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday. While much of their conversation focused on domestic issues, it’s clear that global concerns were weighing on Biden’s mind.
As well they should’ve been.
The US intelligence community on Tuesday said Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2020 election. In response, Biden told ABC News that he’d levy a penalty on the Kremlin and its leader, whom Biden agreed is a “killer” after getting to know him.
Biden’s administration has faced heavy criticism for choosing not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, for allegedly personally ordering the grisly killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden defended the administration’s actions, arguing the real punishment came in the form of downgraded ties between Washington and Riyadh.
Normally presidents are guarded in interviews. But even Stephanopoulos, who’s no stranger to presidential one-on-ones, told his colleagues on Wednesday morning that Biden “came to play” and was “primed to weigh in on all the big issues.”
It’s therefore worth taking a closer look at what, exactly, Biden said about his foreign policy.
Putin “will pay a price” for 2020 election interference, and he is a “killer”
Shortly before the interview, the US intelligence community released a declassified report assessing foreign attempts to influence the 2020 presidential election. Among the conclusions was that Putin had authorized “influence operations” — moves to make a target audience act in a specific way — designed to hurt Biden’s chances of victory and boost then-President Donald Trump.
After reading some of those conclusions to Biden, Stephanopoulos asked, “What price must [Putin] pay?” Biden’s answer was unequivocal: “He will pay a price.”
The president then mentioned his tense January phone call with Putin. Biden said he told his counterpart, “If I establish this occurred” — meaning that Russia had meddled in the 2020 election — “then be prepared.”
But the president didn’t specify what, exactly, the “price” Putin will face might be — “You’ll see shortly,” Biden said. CNN’s Kylie Atwood reported on Tuesday that the administration plans to sanction nations that interfered in the 2020 vote, including Russia, as soon as next week. It’s therefore possible that Putin’s country will soon suffer some hefty financial penalties.
That’s not all. Biden explained that the most important thing in dealing with foreign leaders is to “just know the other guy.” That prompted Stephanopoulos to ask, “Do you think he’s a killer?” (referring to Putin), to which Biden responded, “I do.”
Biden’s conclusion is surely informed by the Kremlin’s recent attempt to kill the Russian pro-democracy opposition figure Alexei Navalny last year and UK-based Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018. Still, it’s noteworthy to hear a president openly agree another world leader is a “killer.” For example, when then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked Trump the same question in 2017, Trump’s response was: “You think our country is so innocent?” and “I do respect [Putin].”
It’s clear, then, that Biden is no fan of the Kremlin leader and is currently in no rush to improve US-Russia ties. However, he did conclude the Russia segment by noting both countries can work together when their interests align, citing the five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control deal between the two countries earlier this year.
Put together, the Biden administration will remain tough on Russia and Putin in particular. But if they can find areas of mutual interest, then Washington and Moscow might be able to put their differences aside — at least temporarily.
That’s no longer so clear, as hours after the interview aired Russia’s ambassador to the US was recalled back to his country. He’s apparently headed home for “consultations” with the Kremlin about the state of US-Russia relations.
“It is tough” to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 1
The president, very broadly, has two paths to choose from. He can abide by Trump’s deal with the Taliban last year, which would require all American service members to leave Afghanistan by that deadline. Or Biden can extend the US military mission, either unilaterally or by negotiating an extension with the Taliban, as a way to pressure the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government.
The administration has said for weeks that Biden hasn’t made a decision because its Afghanistan policy is still under review. But the president tipped his hand during the ABC News interview.
“It could happen” that he would agree to withdraw all US troops by May, he said, “but it is tough.”
Biden cited the Trump-Taliban deal and the troubled presidential transition as potential reasons for why he might extend America’s longest war.
“That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president — the former president — worked out,” Biden said. “The failure to have an orderly transition from the Trump presidency to my presidency … has cost me time and consequences.”
Biden noted that it won’t be much longer before he makes up his mind. But his hint that a May 1 withdrawal might not happen has already upset critics of America’s continued presence in Afghanistan.
“That isn’t very encouraging,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank and a proponent of military restraint. “It will be more than ‘tough’ to secure the Biden administration’s very ambitious objectives in Afghanistan” with 2,500 service members, he said, “when 100,000 US troops, plus many thousands more from NATO countries, were unable to do that.”
Still, others felt Biden didn’t close the door on a departure at some point. The president’s comments “suggested he still plans to pursue withdrawal” but “it’s mostly a question of whether he’ll meet the May deadline,” said Kyle Haynes, an assistant professor at Purdue University.
The US-Saudi relationship will “change”
The Biden administration in February released an unclassified version of an intelligence report confirming who ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi: It was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
That conclusion was an open secret, as news reports shortly after the assassination cited classified intelligence pointing to Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to by his initials, MBS) as having personally ordered the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. That intelligence included, among other things, information about the crown prince’s phone calls in the days before the murder, and calls by the kill team to a senior aide to the crown prince.
The expectation was Biden would target MBS for punishment after the intelligence release with some combination of sanctions, visa restrictions, or asset freezes. After all, Biden on the campaign trail called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make its leaders “pay the price” for human rights violations.
But he didn’t go that far as president. Instead, he created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials said at the time.
That’s basically the same point the president made to Stephanopoulos. He “made it clear” to Saudi Arabia’s king in their phone call “that things were going to change” but not end, Biden said.
“We held accountable all the people in that organization” responsible for the murder, “but not the crown prince, because we have never that I’m aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him,” the president continued.
Most experts say Biden’s team made a cool calculation: MBS is likely to lead his country officially at some point, and the US needs Riyadh to help counter Iran, fight terrorists, stabilize parts of Syria, and more. Washington would have trouble doing all those things if it cut ties to Riyadh completely.
Instead of a full “rupture,” then, the administration chose instead to downgrade its relationship with the kingdom.
Biden, though, rejects any talk that he let Saudi Arabia — and MBS in particular — off the hook. “I’m the guy that released the report,” he said, referencing the now-public intelligence document. And in his conversation with Saudi King Salman, he “went down the list of the things we expected the Saudis to do,” including that it should “end the war in Yemen, end the starvation there.”
The pressure on Riyadh is there, Biden essentially argued, but it’s clearly less than what critics of the US-Saudi partnership want to see.
“They are trying to thread the needle between competing interests,” Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told me earlier this month. “Trying to please a broad array of interested parties is likely going to end up frustrating many of them.”