New York (Brussels Morning) US President Joseph Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have agreed to meet on 16 June in Switzerland. Because Biden has yet to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the coming US-Russia summit will be the most significant bilateral meeting of Biden’s still relatively new presidency.
The two leaders are not unknown to each other, so the occasion represents more than just an opportunity for Putin and Biden to meet one another in person. There are a number of substantial issues vying for a place on the agenda including such recent events as Russia’s tacit support for the Belarusian government’s hijacking of a Ryanair flight and the news of yet another cyberattack against the US. Narrowing the list down to a workable number will be important, but even more, so will be the tone Biden sets with Putin.
From Putin’s perspective, this encounter will be very different than his interactions with Biden’s predecessor. Unlike Trump, Biden is not going to trust Putin’s word or let it outweigh the US intelligence findings. While Russia supported Trump and sought to help him in his campaigns in both 2016 and, less successfully, in 2020, Biden has never benefited from the Kremlin’s forays into American domestic politics.
In short, Russia no longer has a client in the White House and that will frame the entire summit. Over and above the myriad pressing issues and tensions now existing between the two countries, Biden, his party, and many of his advisers also sense there is unfinished business stemming from the 2016 election, the SolarWinds hack in 2020, and the relatively new, but enduring and nefarious ties linking the Kremlin and the American far-right. Accordingly, Biden’s primary message to Putin should be that “there’s a new Sheriff in town.” That is the kind of message that is best delivered in person, but it is one that also needs to be backed up with meaningful actions.
Questions of what happens after the message is delivered and what policies ensue as a result are much more difficult to answer. For most of this century, the bilateral relationship between the US and Russia has been characterized by numerous areas of disagreement. These include Ukraine, Georgia, NATO expansion, human rights and, more recently, Russia’s efforts to destabilize western countries.
In addition, the need for cooperation is critical in relation to nuclear stockpiles, climate change, and current and future pandemics. It is also increasingly clear that while cooperation with Russia is important, it is not going to happen as long as Putin leads the country. Biden, unlike any of the three US Presidents who preceded him and had to deal with Putin, is fully aware of this and under no illusions about the Russian leader.
An assertive Washington
When it comes to Russia, the new US President has long been part of the more hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. Moreover, in the course of the last five years, those voices within the Democratic Party that might have favoured a softer approach to Moscow have been substantially transformed by the sleazy relationship they perceived between Trump and Putin. The GOP, for its part, is trying to erase the Trump-Putin connection and show that it is not beholden to Russia. Overall, this enables Biden to bring a fair amount of domestic political strength to the summit, but it also underscores the need for a deft political approach.
It is essential that the US send a clear message to Russia that should begin with new targeted sanctions or related actions. However, Biden cannot afford to have US-Russia relations take up the political bandwidth that is now being occupied by the President’s domestic agenda.
Biden needs to be wary of the Republicans who would like nothing better than to find a way to talk tough about Russia while preventing any real examination of the Kremlin-Trump-GOP connection from moving forward. The GOP would like to distract from their own craven relationship with Russia by portraying Biden as being weak on Russia. We have already seen rumblings of this because of Biden’s lifting of sanctions on Nord Stream 2.
Politically, it is probably better for Biden to err on the side of taking a strong approach to Russia. Democrats in Congress have all but given him carte blanche to do this. Republicans are unlikely to gain any traction with their accusations that Biden is soft on Russia should the President follow this course. However, a policy of toughness towards Russia will further embroil the US in the politics of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East while also exacerbating tensions with Moscow.
Russia will respond to further sanctions or other decisive actions by the Washington by continuing its nefarious actions against the US and its allies. That should not be a reason for Biden to weaken his stance, but it must be taken into account as part of the administration’s strategy. The last decade or so has shown that Putin’s aggression, not unlike that of the US, is a constant not a variable. Recognizing that and seeking to counter it is wiser than yet another round of resets that won’t work.