President Biden seems stuck on a recurrent illusion in new American administrations: that Vladimir Putin might change his behavior.
22 Jun 2021
“I did what I came to do,” President Joe Biden said at his press conference after his Geneva summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And that is what Mr. Biden did. The problem is, so did Putin.
Biden went to Geneva to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship by reducing tensions and exploring potential areas of cooperation, whether on general issues—arms control, climate change, the Arctic—or more discrete ones, like humanitarian relief in Syria, where Russian forces have greatly contributed to atrocities and human suffering. He also went to explain to Putin the “consequences” that the Russian would risk by his continued bad behavior.
Putin went to Geneva to show his audience at home that he is the U.S. President’s equal, not someone shunned or isolated, and to show the world that Russia is an important global player. He also went to impress upon Biden that the United States, not Russia, bears responsibility for the countries’ currently poor bilateral relations.
In Biden’s separate post-summit press conference, he stressed the abysmal human rights situation in Russia, including the Navalny case. Biden noted the threats to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s operations in Russia and said the United States won’t tolerate Russian election interference. Biden listed other subjects covered by the summit meetings: Ukraine, Belarus, Iran, Afghanistan, cyberattacks.
In perhaps the most promising part of the summit, both leaders mentioned in their separate press conferences the two Americans, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, who are, in Biden’s view, “wrongfully imprisoned” in Russia. Putin acknowledged that Biden had raised the matter and said, “There could be some ground for compromise. The Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department will work in this direction.” If the summit leads to their release, Biden can rightly take credit; and let’s hope for a similar outcome for others among Russia’s nearly four hundred political and religious prisoners.
The two leaders agreed that their ambassadors would return to their respective postings and their teams would follow up to discuss arms control and cyberattacks. Both leaders described their discussions as “constructive” and “positive.” Each said that neither side issued any threats or ultimatums.
Biden stressed that there is “no substitute” for a face-to-face dialogue like the one he had with Putin. Yet the U.S.-Russia relationship does not suffer from a lack of dialogue; it suffers from the two sides’ fundamentally different values and interests. A recent Chatham House report discounted the idea that “more dialogue will narrow differences.” In fact, the report said, “Russia’s current leadership is strongly motivated to maintain confrontation as a means of forcing concessions from the West.”
Putin secured the Geneva summit with Biden not by extending a friendly hand but by threatening a renewed attack against Ukraine. Since April, when Biden issued the summit invitation, ransomware attacks launched from Russia have targeted a major U.S. pipeline and the largest meat processor in America. Last year Russian hackers went after American medical facilities in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and conducted a disinformation campaign against U.S.-produced vaccines. They infiltrated the SolarWinds network and a number of government agencies and attempted to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
These are hostile actions. If undertaken by just about any other leader, they would trigger a serious American response. But they won Putin an audience with Biden.
Putin maintains his military threat against Ukraine. He thumbed his nose at the West to meet with and show his support for Alexander Lukashenko after the Belarusian dictator, in an act of terrorism, forced down a civilian airliner in order to arrest a critic of his regime. Putin continues to support the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and Putin mercenaries meddle in Libya, the Central African Republic, and other countries.
Yet Biden met with him. And the administration waived sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and Putin pal and ex-Stasi agent Matthias Warnig. While the waiver was extended to improve relations with Berlin, it was warmly received in Moscow as well.
The White House argues that Biden had to meet with Putin not despite Putin’s egregious behavior but because of it: Biden had to make the consequences of Putin’s actions in-your-face clear to him.
It does not look as if Putin got the message. Ahead of the meeting, both leaders said that bilateral relations had reached a low point; but Putin, in his post-meeting press conference, denied any responsibility for the problem. “All the actions related to the deterioration,” he said, “were initiated by the U.S., not Russia.”
Putin and his circle took a similar stance toward the Obama Administration’s attempted “reset;” and if Putin really thinks responsibility for fixing the problem lies with the United States rather than Russia, we are unlikely to see much post-summit progress.
Putin replied to questions from Western reporters about Russia’s abysmal human rights record with his habitual whataboutism, raising the Black Lives Matter protests and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. He refused to say the name “Navalny,” calling him only “that citizen” while complaining that Navalny—in Berlin recovering from the FSB’s attempt to kill him with poison—posted videos online (one of them detailing the FSB attack) but failed to register with Russian authorities. When the press asked about Russian hacking and ransomware attacks, Putin blamed the attacks, along with most of the world’s cyber problems, on the United States.
This doesn’t bode well for the future of cyberattacks out of Russia.
Putin’s performance will be well received in Russia, especially through Kremlin-controlled outlets. Putin was on the global stage, projecting the image of a leader equal to the American President. While Biden took no questions from Russian “journalists,” Putin took several from Western reporters.
So, Putin did what he came to do in Geneva.
Putin’s notions of predictability and stability are wholly different from Biden’s. Putin wants to make Russian elections extremely predictable—by disqualifying any real opposition. He thinks stability consists of the elimination of any threats, domestic or foreign, to his ability to stay in power and use one of the world’s most corrupt systems to enrich himself and his circle.
Otherwise, Putin prefers unpredictability and instability. He seeks to destabilize close neighbors that could pose threatening democratic alternatives to his authoritarian system in Russia—through invasion (Ukraine and Georgia), support for like-minded leaders (Lukashenko in Belarus, Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine), or hybrid tactics (affecting all of Russia’s unfortunate neighbors). He seeks to destabilize the West in general with hacks and ransomware attacks, election interference, and the distortion of sensitive debates.
Because it is unlikely that anyone will go after the assets of Putin and his close circle in the short run, it is similarly unlikely that Putin will change his behavior. In March, Biden called Putin a “killer”; in Brussels on Monday he called the Russian a “worthy adversary.” To judge by Putin’s performance in Geneva, Biden was right the first time.
In a 2014 New Yorker article, Biden recalled a 2011 meeting he had with Putin when Biden was Vice President and Putin was Russia’s prime minister. Biden remembered that he told Putin, “I
don’t think you have a soul.” Putin looked back at Biden, smiled, and said, “We understand one another.” After the two men’s separate press conferences in Geneva, it is not clear that Biden and Putin understood one another this time. Each man did what he came to do; fingers crossed that Whelan, Reed, and hopefully others will get released. Beyond that, however, it doesn’t look as if the Geneva summit moved the needle much at all. Each man seems to think the ball is in the other guy’s court.
David J. Kramer, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is director of European & Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in the George W. Bush Administration.