Joe Biden’s tough-sounding talk during his campaign and his rhetoric and actions in the first three months of his administration didn’t give any indication that he was eager to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet that’s exactly what he will do on June 16 in Geneva.
The purpose of the summit is unclear. Two rounds of American sanctions on Russia and President Biden’s acknowledgement during an interview that Vladimir Putin is a “killer” suggested that it would be a long time before the two might sit down together. When the two leaders agreed to extend the New START arms control agreement, they did so over the phone, demonstrating that face-to-face encounters weren’t necessary to get things done.
Biden only offered the summit after a massive Russian military build-up along the Russian-Ukrainian border and in illegally occupied Crimea in April, which coincided with the rapidly deteriorating condition of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Putin subsequently pulled back some of his forces, reducing tensions with Ukraine at least briefly. Navalny, who had gone on a hunger strike to protest his abysmal treatment, was finally allowed to see reputable doctors. Biden’s offer to meet with Putin appeared to have worked, at least in keeping worse things from happening.
Putin, however, took more than a month to formally accept Biden’s invitation. In that time, Russian authorities cracked down even more on political opponents, journalists, and civil society ahead of September’s parliamentary elections. Russia is ramping up pressure on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, making it impossible for the outlet to maintain a physical presence in the country. Russia-based hackers executed a successful ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline. In an effort to target NGOs, including human rights groups, Russia’s SVR spy agency hacked into a computer system used by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Two weeks ago, Russian hackers targeted the world’s largest meat processor, forcing a temporary halt in production at all the company’s U.S. facilities, in what is starting to look like a Russian hack-a-week, if not more, against the United States. This led FBI Director Christopher Wray to compare the hacking and ransomware threats, most coming from Russia, to 9/11.
Russian support for the murderous Assad regime continues unabated. And Russian authorities continue to back Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, even after he forced down a Ryanair flight over Belarusian airspace to arrest (and coerce a bogus confession from) a journalist critical of his regime. In the span of a month, the idea of a Biden-Putin summit has lost much of its already meager appeal.
Despite these developments, and barring some last-minute cancelation, the two leaders still plan to meet this Wednesday. Putin will try to turn the summit into a propaganda bonanza—and yet the only problems the Russian dictator has “solved” are those he caused in the first place. The universe of positive outcomes from the meeting is small, but some positive steps may still be attainable.
Here are five ideas for how to make the best of a challenging situation.
1) Ahead of the Putin meeting, President Biden should communicate directly with some of those who have borne the costs of the Putin regime’s misdeeds. He should meet—virtually, if necessary—with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was the true winner in the Belarusian elections last summer before a brutal crackdown by Belarusian dictator Alexandr Lukashenko with Putin’s backing. He should call Navalny’s family to signal U.S. condemnation of Putin’s mistreatment of the anti-corruption campaigner and his cowardly move to ban Navalny’s political organization on June 9. And Biden should follow up his June 7 phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky with a similar call within 48 hours of the Putin meeting, to demonstrate support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russian invasion and occupation and to express ongoing interest in Ukraine’s democratic and anticorruption reforms. (At that time the two presidents should agree and announce a date for Zelensky’s visit to the White House in July.) At the NATO summit, he and our allies should reaffirm support for Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO, as the alliance promised back in 2008.
2) Biden should use the occasion to send a message about Putin’s misdeeds to those who work on foreign policy and national security in the U.S. government. Biden is smartly eschewing a joint press conference with Putin. At his own press conference after the meeting, Biden should be sober in the accounting of instances of Russian egregious behavior that he raised with Putin, and he should express his confidence in the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that have led to attributions of Russian responsibility for cyberattacks and election interference. Three years ago, in Helsinki, President Trump reiterated Putin’s lies over the CIA’s assessment. Biden has an opportunity to draw a clear contrast. Only a small percentage of the U.S. public will read or listen to whatever Biden says after the meeting, but every one of the hundreds of professionals who are working on various aspects of Russia policy within the U.S. government will do so. This is an opportunity to telegraph to the public and to those on his team that the president is clear-eyed about the multiple challenges posed by Putin’s regime. To increase the constructive pressure on Putin, Biden should indicate a readiness to reverse his surprise decision to waive sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
3) The White House team should work with the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Moscow to ensure that Biden also speaks directly to the Russian people. We know in advance that Putin’s state-controlled TV will cast the summit as Biden’s acknowledgment of Russia’s power and Putin’s centrality on the international stage. While it is difficult to penetrate the Kremlin-controlled public sphere, Biden’s team should work to put a message to the Russian people on the record and think about creative ways of reaching as many Russian citizens as possible. Our problems, after all, are with the man in the Kremlin and his supporting cast, not with the Russian people.
4) Biden should demonstrate to America’s partners in Europe and Asia that it has made a good-faith effort to engage Putin diplomatically on issues of concern. If past is prologue, then Putin’s behavior is likely to get worse, not better. And when it does, the diplomatic work of marshaling an appropriate international response could be helped along by pointing out the fact that, at the outset of his presidency, Biden made a good faith effort to engage Putin. But a good-faith effort should include clear, specific communication about Russia’s international legal obligations, international concern over Russia’s behavior, and the steps necessary to address those concerns.
5) Biden must avoid succumbing to the temptation to use the summit as an occasion for diplomatic entrepreneurship. No flashy new initiatives. No creative ways of describing or directing the future of the relationship. If this meeting is about level-headed level-setting, let it be that. Describe the state of the relationship honestly and unemotionally. Raise concerns about human rights, corruption, and Russian aggression toward its neighbors. Lay down markers about election interference and hacking and spell out for Putin the costs of such continued behavior and actions, including the possibility of sanctions against him and those closest to him. Make the agenda methodical and workmanlike. If the White House team is looking for policy issues to put on the agenda, it should limit itself to existing domains like nuclear security and climate issues while recognizing that Putin’s word does not mean much.
What might have seemed like a smart idea in April is looking less attractive in June. The fundamental challenge for any U.S. president engaging with Putin or others like him is that, for the interlocutor, there is nothing as valuable as the legitimacy and importance they harvest from the mere fact of the meeting with the U.S. president. In that sense, Biden will go into a meeting where Putin is certain to get what he wants—the ability to posture internationally and spin domestically—the minute the meeting starts, and where past experience teaches that Putin is almost certain to deliver none of what the U.S. wants no matter how many hours of negotiation might ensue. The best move, then, is for the U.S. to widen the aperture, to make the meeting more than a summit of the Russian and U.S. presidents, and for Biden to use the occasion to spotlight the global costs of Russia’s bad behavior, the volatility that it has caused, and to speak to a broader international audience that shares the U.S. interest in disincentivizing the rogue behaviors of Putin’s regime.