Biden must up the ante to get what he wants from Putin
I hope that President Biden won’t look Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye to peer into his soul when the two meet in Geneva next week. That strategy was used by President George W. Bush, and it failed. Putin is a former KBG operative, trained to project whatever he thinks would be effective to get what he wants from statesmen like Biden. He is a killer. Biden himself said so, and he should be treated like one.
But in the past year, Biden has treated Putin with kid gloves. Now is the time to take those gloves off and tell Putin what he really wants, without mincing words: to end Russia’s interference with U.S. elections, economy and society through cyberattacks.
This may be a tall order for Biden, who is by nature diplomatic and conciliatory. But it’s about time for him not only to tell Putin what he wants but also to make clear the cost of non-compliance, beyond what he outlined in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
Russia interfered in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. It entered the digital systems of almost 18,000 government and private sector companies, including those of the Senate armed services, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and many Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft.
These attacks are an all-out assault on U.S. economic, public and government institutions, and its society. The Biden administration’s response included:
- Prohibiting U.S. financial institutions from conducting transactions in the primary market for new ruble or non-ruble dominated bonds issued after June 14, 2021.
- Expelling 10 diplomats, presumed spies, from the Russian diplomatic mission to the U.S.
- Sanctioning 32 individuals and entities, some of which made it possible to infiltrate as many as 18,000 U.S. companies and institutions.
- Penalizing eight individuals and institutions associated with Russia’s on-going presence in Crimea, in cooperation with the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
Clearly, the Biden administration’s response did not stop Putin. On the contrary: It brought about more invasions, such as the ransomware attacks on meat processor JBS and Colonial Pipeline, which disrupted gasoline supplies throughout southeastern U.S.
For a president who has been big and bold on domestic policy, Biden’s approach toward Russia has thus far been small and timid. Admittedly, Biden and his administration have been busy dealing with the important domestic issues of the pandemic, reviving the U.S. economy, and finding a viable solution to the country’s immigration problems. But these problems pale in comparison with Russia’s cybersecurity threat to the very essence of U.S. democracy.
This is no time to play nice with Putin. The soft attitude and sanctions of the past have not stopped Russia’s cyberspace attacks on the U.S. It’s time for Biden to up the ante.
A Biden success in Geneva would not only be good for the U.S.; it would improve our standing among our allies, especially among the Baltic states, which fear that Russia may interfere with their independence the way it has been doing with Ukraine.
Biden must not let this opportunity to defend the U.S. get away. He must stand his ground.
Avraham Shama is the former dean of the College of Business at the University of Texas, The Pan-American. He is a professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico. He has published a book and many articles about Russia. His new book, “The Dawn of Cyberwars,” is forthcoming.