Biden’s agenda in Geneva: Remind Putin of consequences for Russian malign behavior

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It remains unclear whether a summit between President Biden and Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is vital. The most important issue between the two — renewing the New START arms control agreement — was accomplished by phone earlier this year. Moreover, providing Putin a place on the stage next to an American president only enhances his legitimacy and soft power, domestically and abroad; why give the Kremlin an unearned gift? Nonetheless, there are two reasons why a U.S.-Russia summit makes for good policy and good politics at this moment.  

The first is to deliver messages that only an American president can deliver — particularly in terms of what consequences are about to unfold for Russian malign behavior — and the administration has indicated Biden intends to do just that. The second is to keep America’s European allies aligned with the less diplomatic elements of the West’s approach toward Russia, namely stronger defense and deterrence. Keeping Europe on side is critical to American efforts vis-à-vis Russia and, indirectly, China.

In advance of the summit, the administration is lowering expectations. In fact, President Biden’s agenda in Geneva is relatively limited. Most broadly, Biden seeks stability and predictability in the relationship, but this seems to fly in the face of Russian policies of late. This is especially so with regard to Ukraine, where the use of instability and unpredictability seems aimed at deterring both Kyiv and the West from pursuing a deeper embrace.

Beyond the general goal of stability, Biden may have more luck on the specific subjects of arms control, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change’s impact on the Arctic, bolstering military-to-military de-escalation channels of communication, leveraging Russia’s influence vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, and ensuring a post-America Afghanistan does not devolve into a terrorist haven. These are issue areas that place Putin on an equal footing with Biden, allowing him to appear as a global leader of greater importance than his country’s position and economy otherwise would justify. 

Undoubtedly, Biden will raise Russia’s violation of international norms when it comes to basic human rights, especially those of opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny. Putin will claim this is a domestic issue, but events in Salisbury, the Czech Republic and Minsk make clear that Russian (and Belarusian) pursuit of political opposition figures has become an international problem.

Admittedly, many of these issues, from arms control to human rights, could be (and have been) addressed by underlings. But there are some messages that are best delivered leader to leader.  Indeed, upon arriving in Europe last week, President Biden told American troops in Mildenhall, England that he was meeting with Putin “to let him know what I want him to know.”

So, what should President Biden want Putin to know? Given Russia’s undeclared hybrid war against the United States and its allies — including election interference, military provocations, electronic warfare, aggressive disinformation campaigns, and Russia-origin cyber attacks on an American oil pipeline, meatpacking plants and hospitals fighting the pandemic — Biden should shed light on the array of overt and covert actions the United States will take in response if Russia fails to show restraint. 

These should include using an array of tools to keep the price of oil low to undermine Russia’s fiscal standing, banning Western institutions’ trading of existing Russian debt in secondary markets, and ending Russian banks’ access to the financial messaging system used for most international money transfers. These steps would increase Moscow’s borrowing costs, weaken the ruble, and reduce liquidity in the Russian economy. But Biden also should make things personal for Putin, signaling American intent to hit his wallet and his retirement estate, as well as U.S. willingness and ability to use incentives to sow discord within his inner circle, forcing him to keep one eye cast over his shoulder.

In addition to hearing these important messages directly from Biden, the summit also can provide an opportunity to galvanize Western unity in areas beyond diplomacy. Many U.S. allies in Europe believe security on the continent can be achieved only with Russia, not against it. For this reason, the West has a long history of simultaneously pursuing the seemingly contradictory policies of diplomacy and defense and deterrence vis-à-vis Moscow. At least attempting high-level diplomacy with the Kremlin makes it much more likely the West will remain united in pursuit of stronger defense and deterrence measures aimed at Russia, especially when it comes to beefing up NATO’s posture in the Baltic States and near the Black Sea and building and employing offensive cyber capabilities in Europe. 

Along these same lines, Putin shouldn’t view the recent Biden administration decision to forego some sanctions on the nearly complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as any kind of a goodwill concession or a “positive signal” toward the Kremlin. Instead, it seems clear it was designed to remove a major impediment to improved relations with a country that is arguably America’s most important ally in Europe: Germany. Allied solidarity is a prerequisite for clamping down on Russian malign behavior more broadly. Subsequently, a stronger European NATO response to Russia in Europe can free American attention and assets for the Indo-Pacific and China’s norm-breaking behavior in places such as the South China Sea.

There remains plenty of risk in a summit with Vladimir Putin. But solidifying allied unity and delivering direct messages on the costs of Russian behavior would be two of the most effective yet unofficial “deliverables” to come out of Geneva this week.  

Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He’s the author most recently of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble: European Realignment and the Future of American Geopolitics.” The views expressed are his own.

Tags Biden-Putin summit Joe Biden Russia hacking Russia poisonings Russian interference in 2016 election Vladimir Putin

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