Antony Blinken on Russia
This compilation of observations and policy ideas related to Russia by Antony Blinken is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ takes on issues pertaining to Russia, U.S.-Russian relations and broader U.S. policies affecting Russia.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has selected Antony Blinken to serve as his secretary of state. Previously, Blinken served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state under U.S. President Barack Obama.
This compilation is meant as a sampling of Blinken’s views. All sections may be updated with new or past statements. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another.
Bulleted text that is not italicized, bracketed or in parentheses is a direct quote from Blinken.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- To be updated.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- We have to work closely with allies like South Korea and Japan and press China to build genuine economic pressure to squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table. We need to cut off its various avenues and access to resources—something we were doing very vigorously at the end of the Obama-Biden administration. That takes a lot of time, a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work. But again, it can pay off. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- Any deal with North Korea should eliminate the material, warheads and missiles it already has and, just as important, its ability to produce more—forever. That deal should be verified by an indefinite, intrusive inspections regime. And it should contend with Pyongyang’s other egregious activities, like providing weapons and technology to unsavory regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria and maintaining the world’s worst gulag state. (New York Times, 06.11.18)
- There is something else Mr. Trump should borrow from the Iran deal: a monitoring system that blankets the entire nuclear supply chain—the mines, mills, centrifuge factories and assembly lines as well as the enrichment and reprocessing sites themselves. That’s the best way to ensure North Korea does not develop a covert program while pretending to make good on its commitments. In the end, there will be a straightforward test for success: Does Mr. Kim still have nuclear weapons or the means to quickly produce them? Does he retain nuclear-capable missiles or the ability to rapidly reacquire them? Promises to denuclearize won’t cut it: North Korea repeatedly has made and broken them before. (New York Times, 06.11.18)
Iran and its nuclear program:
- When President Trump walked away from the Iran deal, an agreement that, again, was verifiably working to block Iran's path to nuclear weapons, or at least to the fissile material necessary to make a weapon, he promised a better deal. And, of course, the opposite has happened. Iran is building back its nuclear capability. President Trump effectively freed Iran of its commitments under the nuclear agreement. And so now it's enriching uranium at higher levels, its stockpiling more. It's using more advanced centrifuges. And the breakout time necessary for Iran to have enough nuclear material to fuel a weapon has decreased from more than a year, as it was under the so-called JCPOA, to a handful of months. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- The administration said the action against [top Iranian commander Qassem] Soleimani made them safer. In the very next breath, it told Americans to leave Iraq, and embassies throughout the region have warned American citizens that danger is now increased for them. We have a profound interest in making sure that we’re focused on the big strategic challenges we face in an adversary, Russia, and a strategic competitor, China. Well, both of them are thrilled at the prospect of us getting re-embroiled in a conflict in the Middle East. And, by the way, the president has talked about ending forever wars, which would be a good thing. He’s now increased our troop presence in the region by 18,000 in recent months. And so if you step back and look at all of those interests, we’re in a worse place than we were before all of this. (PBS, 01.08.20)
- The best deal Mr. Trump can reach with North Korea more than likely will look like what Barack Obama achieved with Iran. The Iran deal required Tehran—up front—to eliminate 98 percent of its uranium stockpile, dismantle and put under seal two-thirds of its centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment at levels well below weapons-grade and remove the core of its plutonium reactor. The effect was to push Iran’s “breakout capacity”—the time it would take the regime to produce enough material for a single weapon—from weeks to over one year. A sweeping inspections regime would ensure Iran was making good on its commitments. (New York Times, 06.11.18)
- Russia was a good partner in dealing with the Iran nuclear problem and played a productive role there. (PBS, 07.27.17)
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- While everyone focused on the reset language, and the headline was, “The United States wants a new relationship with Russia,” if you read the speech carefully, you can see that there was a flipside to that. Biden was crystal clear that, even as we sought a reset with Russia, we weren't going to renege on our basic principles. We weren't going to go back to a world of spheres of influence in Europe or beyond. We weren't going to accept the proposition that one country like Russia could tell other countries what they should do or shouldn’t do, with whom they should associate or not associate. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- But where he’s [Russian President Vladimir Putin] very smart and very adept is using these so-called asymmetric tactics to push, to prod, to probe, to provoke without a frontal military assault. It’s everything from buying off politicians and centers of influence, misinformation campaigns, very under-the-radar limited military probes and actions, supporting separatist forces in these countries, all of that taken together turns into an asymmetric strategy that, with very few resources, and with a much weaker hand, can do tremendous damage. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- I would say quickly that a President Biden would be in the business of confronting Mr. Putin for his aggressions, not embracing him. Not trashing NATO, but strengthening its deterrence. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- Russia saw something very different, and certainly Vladimir Putin did. He continued to see the United States trying to hold Russia down, to contain it. The enlargement of NATO seen from Moscow’s eyes was an effort to keep Russia in its place. Iraq certainly was one chapter where, arguably, we didn’t listen to Russia’s views. Then if you fast-forward [to] Libya, other places where we engaged, that just fueled Russian suspicions. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- We continued the process of NATO enlargement, and we continued to keep an open door. That sent a message to Putin that the United States, the West was trying to hold him back, contain him. There had been the confrontation that started during the Bush administration over Georgia and Russia’s invasion of Georgia. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- NATO was dramatically re-energized by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, led by the United States. Our presence, including in countries bordering Russia, is much more regular and significant than it was before the crisis. Europeans became more united when it comes to energy security, again because of this. Across the board, Russia actually strategically was getting into a weaker position. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- To be updated.
Nuclear arms control:
- Certainly, we will want to engage China on arms control issues … but we can pursue strategic stability by extending the New START arms limitation agreement and seek to build on it. (New York Times, 11.22.20)
- On whether China should be included in a renewed New START treaty: That’s an excuse for never getting to a renewed agreement. Yes, there is an issue with China … but if we try to do that, whatever the benefits would be, it would take forever, it might get nowhere—and meanwhile, New START and the advantages that it brings would expire. So no, the first thing we should do—and that a Biden administration would do, assuming that Russia wants the same thing—would be to extend New START. (Aspen Security Forum, 08.05.20)
- We also have to deal at the same time—and we can—with strategic stability. The Vice President believes we should extend New START and look for other avenues to advance strategic stability with Russia, even as we confront Mr. Putin's aggressive actions. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- We negotiated a new strategic arms control limitation treaty, a New START, that was good for the security of both countries. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- When [Donald Trump] got intelligence about Russia paying bounties to the Taliban to kill our troops, same thing: either didn’t read it or ignored it. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- When we have a president who is told that Russia may be putting bounties on the heads of our troops in Afghanistan and does nothing—in fact, worse than nothing, by his own acknowledgement, speaking to President Putin at least six times after he got that report and not raising it, not confronting him and even inviting President Putin to Washington and Russia back into the G7—we have a real, fundamental problem. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- What do we do at this point to protect our core interests [in Afghanistan] and protect against the potential resurgence of these groups that does not require 14,000, 7,000 American forces there? It does require, at least in my judgement, some kind of presence that focuses on counter-terrorism, to make sure that, to the extent possible, what we went there for doesn’t rise up again. (Truman Center Conference on U.S. Global Leadership and Foreign Policy, 06.14.19)
- We cooperated with regard to Afghanistan, where Russia played a positive role, particularly in letting our forces and our equipment transit into and out of Afghanistan. (PBS, 07.27.17)
Conflict in Syria:
- In Syria, at its height, I think we had about 2,000 U.S. forces, mostly special operators, in support for them. They leveraged 60 to 70 thousand Syrian democratic forces, Kurds and Arabs, who did the heavy lifting and the heavy fighting to defeat ISIS and take away the geographic caliphate. That's smart, that's strong, that's sustainable, that's effective. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- If we have something that is sustainable, that has a clear and achievable mission, and, in the case of the 500 that we had and now roughly 1,000 are left, that are leveraging 70 or 80 thousand indigenous forces who are doing the hard work of keeping the pressure on and defeating ISIS, I think that’s a reasonable investment to make. (Truman Center Conference on U.S. Global Leadership and Foreign Policy, 06.14.19)
- Twenty-five million Sunni Muslims live between Baghdad and Damascus. They have been alienated from their governments. Unless they can be convinced that their state will protect and not persecute them, an Islamic State 2.0 will find plenty of new recruits and supporters. (New York Times, 07.09.17)
- Russia has a prime incentive in making this work. It cannot win in Syria, it can only prevent Assad from losing. If this now gets to the point where the civil war actually accelerates, all the outside patrons are going to throw in more and more weaponry against Russia, Russia will be left propping up Assad in an ever-smaller piece of Syria … so the consequences to Russia, as well as to the regime, will begin to be felt of Plan A not being implemented because of Russia’s actions. (Testimony before Congress, 09.29.16)
- We believe that the effort that we’ve made to reach this agreement with Russia was the best way to effectively move toward ending the civil war, because had it succeeded, and indeed, it still can succeed, and I think we’ll know in the hours ahead whether Russia is responsive or not, the cessation of hostilities would be restored, humanitarian assistance would flow, you would get the Syrian air force out of the skies over civilian populated areas, Russia would be focused, as it claims it has been, on ISIL and Daesh. (Testimony before Congress, 09.29.16)
- President Biden would be in the business of … investing in new capabilities to deal with challenges in cyberspace, in outer space, under the sea, A.I., electronic warfare. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- Mr. Putin has been remarkably successful in fueling a crisis of confidence in the United States and in the West, particularly about our elections but even more broadly about our system. Whether that was his design from day one or whether he simply took advantage of opportunities that he helped to create, hard to say. But either way, he’s been remarkably adept. We are now consumed with what Russia did or didn’t do during the elections, what one campaign did or didn’t do in collusion with Russia. That has become the dominant story every single day in our country, to such an extent that it’s also made it difficult to move on with other things that are important. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- The summer of  … we were seeing increasing signs and increasingly troubling signs that Russia was trying to meddle in the election. What we first thought was happening was that Russia was actually trying to get into our electoral systems and somehow affect the result. This caused us to go into overdrive, to make sure that we could defend the integrity of the elections. A massive effort was made to make sure that the election systems themselves were secure. We determined that they were. Then we thought that actually what Russia was trying to do was not so much necessarily actually affect the outcome, but create doubt about the integrity of the election. … It was only later, much later, that the Intelligence Community determined that not only was Russia trying to sow doubt about the election, it was actually trying to prevent Mrs. Clinton from winning and help Mr. Trump win. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- [Obama] gave [Putin] a very clear, stark warning, that if Russia’s meddling didn’t stop, there would be significant consequences. What's interesting is, as best we could tell, after that meeting, Russia seemed to pull back. We didn’t see these efforts continue to try to get information and turn around, but the damage had already been done. (PBS, 07.27.17)
Energy exports from CIS:
- To be updated.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- [A Biden administration] would look to impose real, meaningful costs with coordinated sanctions, exposing corruption, and you need to be very clear and specific with Mr. Putin about what’s at risk. But there also might be some incentives as to what he could gain through trade, through investment, through [a] seat at the table. If Russia changes its actions, that would help relieve their growing dependence on China. (Aspen Security Conference, 08.05.20)
- It may be wishful thinking to believe that expanded economic relations will produce positive change in the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic policies. But this approach deserves a fairer and longer trial than it received during the 1970s. (Ally Versus Ally: America, Europe, and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis, 1987)
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- We will deter, and impose costs for, Mr. Putin’s meddling and aggression … But there’s a flip side … looking to relieve Russia’s growing dependence on China, [which has left him in] not a very comfortable position. (New York Times, 11.09.20)
- Strategic stability, for all of the huge difficulties, profound difficulties in the relationship, is a positive; it’s good for the United States. (Aspen Security Conference, 08.05.20)
- What do we have? We have, unfortunately—tragically and inexplicably—President Trump standing with President Putin on the world stage and saying that he took President Putin’s word over that of our own intelligence agency, when it comes to interference in the last elections. We have, of course, the President taking a two-by-four on a regular basis to NATO, treating it like a protection racket instead of the most vital and most important of our alliances. … I think a Biden administration would, first of all, confront Putin for his egregious actions, not embrace them, as this president has repeatedly done. (Aspen Security Conference, 08.05.20)
- [A]t the start of the Obama administration, we had the impression that the relationship between the United States and Russia was at a low point and could and should be better; that despite our profound differences, there were so many areas where it made sense to try to cooperate, and it was worth giving that a shot. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- The soft underbelly for Russia in Ukraine was not military; it was economic. Hence the sanctions; hence the effort by the United States to lead Europe in imposing very significant sanctions on Russia that made it pay a real price for its adventurism in Ukraine. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- Mr. Putin has been remarkably successful in fueling a crisis of confidence in the United States and in the West, particularly about our elections but even more broadly about our system. Whether that was his design from day one or whether he simply took advantage of opportunities that he helped to create, hard to say. But either way, he’s been remarkably adept. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- First, we've heard in public from Russia's finance minister, its deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, even President Putin himself acknowledging the impact of sanctions. Very recently Sberbank, which is the largest bank in Russia and, in effect, a proxy for the larger economy, announced a steep decline in its first quarter profits. And in doing so, it said, in particular, recent events in Ukraine significantly impacted the dynamics of the Russian economy. (Remarks at Brookings Institution, 06.06.14)
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- I think people anticipated that [Putin] would continue the reform effort begun by Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, and that he would continue to advance Russia’s integration with the West and with the rest of the world. That was what we anticipated. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- [Putin] needs to be able to explain why Russia is having trouble at home, why its economy is stagnating, why it is not delivering for its own people. This is classic. Whenever you're, in one way or another, mismanaging your own country, you’ve got to point fingers somewhere else. He’s found it useful to point them at us and at the West. But there's something more profound going on. For Putin, when Western democracy is successful, it’s the most profound indictment of the system that he’s built in Russia, a country that started to embrace democracy and capitalism after the end of the Cold War, but now it’s turned into this kleptocracy, this illiberal democracy, and, indeed, self-recognized illiberal democracy. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- He [Putin] has taken it to an art form to take a relatively weak hand, a country that is in a very difficult strait economically, that has a declining population, declining life expectancy and is struggling. He’s taken that very weak hand and played it incredibly well. The art form that he’s perfected is particularly in the information space, taking our very openness, using it against us, manipulating information, lying, deceiving and creating doubt. That doubt is a very powerful thing. It takes away our own certainty, our own conviction, our own confidence that our system and values really are better and stronger. It creates doubt in the minds of our own citizens, and it tells his own citizens in Russia that there really is no difference, and that helps him sustain his grip on power. I’ve never seen anyone better at doing it than Mr. Putin. (PBS, 07.27.17)
Defense and aerospace:
- To be updated.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- To be updated.
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- I think Mr. Putin came to a few conclusions. One, of course, was that the success of democracy, particularly on his borders, was a real threat to him and to the system that he had built up, so he had an interest in trying to throw some wrenches in the works, wherever he could. It’s also true that he wanted to protect Russian-speaking populations in these countries [and] saw himself as their guarantor and their guardian. These two things combined probably prompted him to look to see if he could take advantage of the situation, make a little trouble. That was one thing. The other thing is, he knows that he can't challenge a NATO country frontally, militarily. That would be to invite the full wrath of NATO. That would be to invite the United States into a conflict. He has no interest in that. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- We continued to believe until pretty late in the game that Mr. Putin’s interest and Russia’s interest was in deepening its integration with the international community, with the West. … At a certain point, it became against Putin’s personal interest to actually pursue Russian integration, because he couldn’t accept the rules, the transparency, the norms that come with that. That would undermine the kleptocracy that he was building. (PBS, 07.27.17)
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- Democracy has been in retreat. Freedom House ranks countries and it's done it for decades. Of the 40 or so countries that were ranked 'Fully Free' from the 80s to the 90s to the early 2000s, half have fallen backwards. There's a democratic recession and autocracies from Russia to China are trying to exploit our difficulties. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- People have more confidence in Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs than they do in the president of the United States. So we'll have to pick up the pieces of this carnage wrought by President Trump, salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and then mobilize the country and our allies to meet new challenges. (CBS, 09.25.20)
- Russia, again, this is a classic example of using asymmetric tactics. It didn’t frontally invade Ukraine, either Crimea or the Donbass, eastern Ukraine. It sent in small numbers of special forces who allied themselves with local separatists, gave them instruction, gave them equipment, gave them money, gave them direction, and then Putin denied their presence. It was striking, because I remember multiple conversations between President Obama and President Putin. We would be in the Oval Office, and the president would be on the phone with Putin, and Putin would be denying, and in fact flat-out lying, about Russia’s presence in Ukraine. Obama would say to him: “Vladimir, we’re not blind. We have eyes; we can see.” And Putin would just move on as if nothing had happened. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- But the vice president [Joe Biden] at the time also said there are going to be clear differences between the United States and Russia going forward, and clear red lines, and maybe the most important is our profound rejection of the validity of the notion of spheres of influence, that we believe profoundly that countries and people have the right to decide their own future and with whom to associate. That principle was challenged by Russia's actions in Ukraine. (Remarks at Brookings Institution, 06.06.14)
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- [Putin] saw America’s hidden hand everywhere. Color revolutions left, right and center, he thought the United States was behind them. It’s not true, and it’s an unfortunate misreading of what people really felt, whether it was Georgia, whether it was Ukraine, later other countries. But certainly, I think that’s how Mr. Putin genuinely perceived it. (PBS, 07.27.17)
- Stability can best be achieved if the countries of Central Asia are sovereign and independent countries, fully capable of securing their own borders, connected with each other and with the emerging economies of Asia, and benefitting from governments that area accountable to their citizens. The United States wants to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationships with each of the states of Central Asia. At the same time, we do not see these relationships in the region as exclusive, or zero-sum in any way. The nations of Central Asia need healthy, mutually beneficial relations with all of their neighbors and it’s their right as sovereign nations to develop those relations as they see fit, free from pressure or intimidation. It is their choice, not ours, not anyone else’s. (Remarks at Brookings Institution, 06.06.14)
U.S. government photo.