Biden won't bring on board controversial Russia expert

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Natasha Bertrand
·5 min read
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A Russia expert whose bid to join the Biden National Security Council sparked an outcry among prominent critics of the Kremlin is no longer under consideration for the role, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, was being considered for the position of Russia director on the NSC — an influential role that would make him a key touchpoint between the various Cabinet agencies seeking to drive a concerted response to Russia’s aggressive moves in Eastern Europe and beyond.

But several current and former senior officials warned the White House against hiring Rojansky, arguing that appointing him would signal a conciliatory U.S. policy toward Moscow, said the people, who requested anonymity to describe the internal deliberations.

Rojansky got far in the hiring process, the people noted, and was being considered for the role for at least six weeks before his name was made public by Axios. That report provoked uproar among well-known Russia hawks, including activists Bill Browder and Garry Kasparov, as well as the largest Ukrainian-American organization in the country. Rojansky’s critics have pointed to the Kennan Institute’s 2015 award to Russian oligarch Petr Aven, and an open letter written by Ukrainian alumni of the Kennan Institute in 2018 that slammed the think tank unit as an “unwitting tool of Russia’s political interference.”

The internal dispute over Rojansky’s consideration comes amid escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. The Biden administration last week unveiled targeted sanctions against dozens of Russian individuals and entities, a move the Kremlin matched immediately with penalties of its own against U.S. officials.

The volley of retaliatory actions, along with Rojansky’s ultimate failure to secure the job, suggests the hawks hold more sway at a time when President Joe Biden is still trying to find his footing on Russia — balancing tough rhetoric with calls to lower tensions.

“Now is the time to deescalate,” Biden said in a speech on Thursday, following the sanctions announcement. “The way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process. The U.S. is prepared to continue constructively to move forward that process. My bottom line is this: Where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. Where Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond.”

Rojansky was initially recommended to the White House by former California congresswoman Jane Harman, who is the president emerita at the Wilson Center, where Rojanksy serves. Those individuals familiar with the matter said Harman’s recommendation was routed through the Office of the Vice President. Harman did not respond to requests for comment and a spokesperson for Vice President Kamala Harris said she played no role in promoting Rojansky internally.

Rojansky did not respond to a request for comment. But current and former colleagues have called the criticism of him deeply unfair, characterized more by ad hominem attacks than by an understanding of his work. One colleague, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, said Rojansky is a “nuanced analyst” with a “strategic and realist” view about how to engage with Moscow.

“He cares deeply about democracy in Russia and knows the country extremely well,” the colleague said. “You don’t have to agree with everything he says to understand that he would have been an asset on the NSC.”

Rojansky, in his writings and public appearances, has gone further toward reconciliation than Biden in several key areas. He has argued against a continued cycle of sanctions, downplayed the U.S. concern over Russia’s malign activities as “Cold War style paranoia about the Russian bogeyman,” and pronounced that America’s Russia policy across three decades “has failed.”

But he has also acknowledged that “America’s task is not to replace enmity toward Russia with a partnership,” while positing that the U.S. can “manage the current competition in ways that protect vital U.S. interests while minimizing risks and costs, and allowing space for selective cooperation.”

Biden and his national security advisers have similarly been calling for deescalation and cooperation on matters like nuclear treaties and climate change. Biden wrote in 2018 that “Washington must keep the channels of communication open with Moscow” in the name of “strategic stability,” and proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin as recently as last week that they hold a summit together in the summer.

Still, the Ukrainian-American community was vehemently opposed to Rojansky’s potential appointment, further jeopardizing his prospects. Ukraine is a key ally that has been at war with Russia, both on the ground and in cyberspace, since 2014, and is currently pushing the U.S. for more support as it fends off the biggest Russian military buildup on its border in nearly a decade. The country also has influential — and vocal — allies in Washington.

In a letter to Biden dated April 12, the president and vice president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America called Rojansky’s work “a source of much anxiety,” and alleged that Rojansky viewed Ukraine as “expendable to secure closer U.S.-Russia relations.”

“On behalf of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, which has promoted U.S. national interests and democratic values, and sought to advance the sovereignty and security of Ukraine for more than 80 years, we emphatically request that you reject Mr. Rojansky’s appointment,” they wrote.

Some in Russia, meanwhile, were optimistic about the potential appointment. Russian state media outlets, including Sputnik and RT, have described Rojansky in recent days as “highly regarded” and “a renowned political analyst” whose appointment would be a step in the right direction for U.S.-Russia relations.

“Rojansky is simply a political realist, a rare bird in the modern expert community,” Russian columnist Kirill Benediktov wrote for RT earlier this month. “And he does not regard our country as a friendly power, but simply as a force to be reckoned with.”