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Declaring Democracy Won’t be Subverted, Biden Demands Russia and Myanmar Reverse Course

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after taking office, President Biden has demanded that Myanmar reverse a coup d’état and that Russia release its most …

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after taking office, President Biden has demanded that Myanmar reverse a coup d’état and that Russia release its most famous dissident politician, Aleksei A. Navalny, whose arrest and sentencing incited protests of a size and intensity that surprised officials here, and most likely inside the Kremlin.

In both cases, Mr. Biden has declared that the United States will not tolerate the subversion of democracy — or, in the case of Myanmar, an effort to overturn a democratic election. It does not take a close reading of his comments to see a subtext, that the United States is still struggling with the aftermath of a perilously similar attempt.

And, in both cases, Mr. Biden has hinted that sanctions, a favorite, if now wildly overused, tool of American power, will soon follow.

To many critics of the Trump administration, it is a refreshing sign of the return of human rights to the top of the United States’ foreign policy agenda, a theme Mr. Biden is expected to drive home on Thursday in his first foreign policy speech as president. Tellingly, he is planning to deliver it from the building that President Donald J. Trump often referred to as the “Deep State Department.”

But campaigning on a theme of restoring morality to American action in the world is easier than making wayward authoritarian politicians and generals change their behavior.

In the very different cases of Myanmar and Russia, Mr. Biden is about to discover how years of sanctions fatigue — exacerbated in the Trump administration — and a decline in American influence will make delivering on the promise much harder than when he served as vice president. But, especially in the case of Russia, he may also see some new opportunities.

“We have fallen into this trap that sanctions are the easy answer to every problem,” Ivo H. Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under President Barack Obama, noted on Wednesday. “They demonstrate that you care, and they impose some price, though usually not sufficient to change behavior.’’

But he noted that “you have to beware that presidents often reach for them because doing everything else seems too costly.”

The ugly truth is that if poorly executed, sanctions can also backfire.

Punishing Myanmar’s military runs the risk of driving the generals further into the arms of China, a caution noted this week by allies including Japan. Beijing is already financing and building many of Myanmar’s biggest infrastructure projects, including an effort led by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to wire one of the world’s most isolated nations with a 5G cellphone network. China’s leaders would undoubtedly welcome new American sanctions as evidence that Washington is an unreliable partner.

And State Department officials acknowledged on Tuesday that four of the top generals who organized the coup were already under sanction. Needless to say, those sanctions did not deter them from overturning a decade-long, inching move toward democracy. (It also does not help that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed civilian leader, has had her Nobel Peace Prize-winning reputation irreparably tainted by her defense of a military that has committed atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.)

Threatening President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will be even harder.

Mr. Biden was part of the Obama administration debate in 2014 about whether the United States should impose its harshest sanctions yet on Russia for its invasion of eastern Ukraine, and whether it should sponsor a combination of a physical and virtual war there. More than six years later, that sanctions regimen has failed in its one goal: to force Mr. Putin to reverse course, remove his forces and cease harassing a sovereign former Soviet state.

So when the United States condemned the sentencing of Mr. Navalny, the activist whose poisoning and arrest led to people across Russia to protest — more than 10,000 of whom the authorities rounded up — there was recognition among Mr. Biden’s top aides that, in the words of one of them, that when it comes to the Kremlin, “We’re pretty sanctioned out.”

Mr. Biden’s aides say the difference now is that they will work hard to coordinate pressure with allies, whose views Mr. Trump largely ignored over the past four years, as he reached for his phone to tweet orders for new sanctions or tariffs. (Rarely were those tweets prompted by human rights abuses.)

Mr. Putin, of course, loves nothing more than casting Mr. Navalny and the protesters as instruments of the United States, who are seeking to destabilize the country. The last time the United States came after him so directly for suppressing democratic instincts in Moscow was nearly a decade ago, when the secretary of state at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, called out his efforts to rig a parliamentary election.

Mr. Putin accused her of sending “a signal” to “some actors in our country,” and American intelligence analysts later concluded that Russia’s actions to steal emails from the Democrats and release them to embarrass her in the 2016 presidential election constituted direct retribution.

But inside the Biden White House, there is hope that the thousands of Russians who have taken to the streets in protest, electrified by the story of how the government tried to kill Mr. Navalny, may give the United States an opportunity. If executed skillfully and with the help of European allies, Biden administration officials said, many ordinary Russians may welcome sanctions as a sign that the United States is on their side.

“Suddenly in Russia you have a new political environment in which many are looking to see how the world responds, starting with Biden,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who served in several administrations managing Soviet and then Russian affairs.

“Generally, support for democracy is most effective when it merges with a strong internal push inside a country for reform, for freedom,” said Mr. Sestanovich, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “And we haven’t seen that in Russia in a long time, until now.”

In fact, Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow, wrote Mr. Biden last week asking him to place sanctions on 35 Russian who actively participate “in the oppression and corruption of Putin’s regime.”

“The West must sanction the decisions makers who have made it national policy to rig elections, steal from the budget and poison,’’ he wrote. The same group released a video showing a billion-dollar palace that Mr. Putin’s oligarch friends are said to have built for him.

In the Trump era, of course, pressing for democracy was always a calculated maneuver, used so inconsistently that it undercut American claims.

Mr. Trump said little about Chinese abuses in Hong Kong or North Korean concentration camps while trying to strike deals with those governments. His view of China only changed in his last year in office, after he began blaming the country for the coronavirus, which he called the “China virus.” He said that he had no plans to sharply punish friends such as Saudi Arabia as long as they were buying American arms, even after American intelligence linked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr. Biden’s challenge is to show that he is being more consistent — there are hints his administration will release a redacted form of evidence in the Khashoggi case. But he comes to it with less leverage than previous presidents.

One reason is that American sanctions have proved less fearsome in recent years.

In the case of Iran, many around Mr. Trump believed that a few years of crackdowns on oil exports would fracture the government there, or, at least as Mr. Trump himself predicted, force the country’s leadership to strike a new deal. It did neither.

Mr. Trump has retreated to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aging and under pressure, outlasted him.

Nor did tariffs change China’s behavior. It has accelerated its crackdown on Hong Kong, tightened its grip on Muslim minorities and issued new threats against Taiwan.

It was notable when the new secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, told reporters on his first day that he agreed with his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, on China that “genocide was committed against the Uighurs and that hasn’t changed.”

Figuring out how to make China pay a price for a genocide may be one of his next complex tasks.

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