In one respect, the punitive measures imposed on Russia last week by the Biden administration are an attempt to clean up the mess left by Donald Trump. On issue after issue, such as Russian meddling in the 2016 and 2020 elections and cyber-attacks and hacks of US government agencies and businesses, the former president failed to take prompt retaliatory action or any action at all.
Trump cast doubt on Russia’s responsibility for these and other hostile acts, contradicting the findings of America’s intelligence agencies. He routinely declined to criticise Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, for his support for Syria’s murderous regime, the 2018 Salisbury poisonings and the persecution of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
Why Trump behaved in such a fawning, servile way towards Putin, a malicious and unapologetic adversary of the US, is one of the great unsolved mysteries of his presidency. Like the mafia boss he resembles, did Putin have some kind of personal hold on Trump? Answers to this puzzle will hopefully emerge over time.
What is certain is that Joe Biden, Trump’s successor, feels no such constraints. As Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden led a vain bid to “reset” relations with Moscow. In the process, he gained what he said was a telling insight into Putin’s “soul”. He didn’t have one, Biden told him to his face at a 2011 Kremlin meeting. Putin reportedly took this as a compliment.