Biden raised key concerns with Putin, but may have overlooked others

Biden raised key concerns with Putin, but may have overlooked others
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President BidenJoe BidenGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory READ: The .2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE’s meeting in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinIs Ukraine Putin's Taiwan? Democrats find a tax Republicans can support Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE was successful in several respects. To begin with, Putin did not “beat the hell” out of him, as John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE felt had been the case when he met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. On the contrary, from all indications, including Putin’s own press conference, Biden clearly held his own. And as Biden put it, “I wanted President Putin [to] understand why I say what I say and why I do what I do, and how we’ll respond to specific kinds of actions that harm America’s interest.

Unlike his predecessor, Biden provided the American perspective on most of the long list of issues that divide the two countries. These included the two Americans, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reid, who are being held in Russian custody; Russian malign use of cyberspace to affect  American elections and infrastructure; Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe operations in Russia; human rights issues and especially the fate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny; the situation in Belarus; and Russian infringement of Ukrainian territorial integrity. 

At the same time, Biden also outlined areas in which the two countries could potentially cooperate: strategic arms control; addressing the challenge of climate change; combating terrorism, notably in Afghanistan; providing humanitarian aid to the dispossessed in Syria; and maintaining stability in the Arctic.

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Biden rightly did not signal to Putin just when and in what way the United States might react if Russia ignores American concerns, as often has been the case in the past. As he stated at his post-summit press conference, “We didn’t talk about military response.” Biden thereby wisely avoided drawing the sort of “red line” that got Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHave our enemies found a way to defeat the United States? Millennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost MORE into trouble in September 2013 when he vetoed a strike against Bashar al-Assad’s forces after the Syrian president ignored his warning not to employ chemical weapons against his own people. Ironically, it was Putin who saved the situation by working an arrangement with Assad — both to acknowledge his use of the weapons and to begin to dismantle the program, though he never fully did so. 

On the other hand, Biden also appears not to have mentioned a number of critical issues that featured prominently at the NATO summit in which he had just participated. Having voiced concern about Russian pressure on non-NATO member Ukraine, he did not do the same regarding Georgia and Moldova, which also have been destabilized by Moscow’s support for breakaway republics on their respective territories. Nor, it seems, did he mention the major Russian arms buildup in Kaliningrad, the enclave that borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, which represents a threat to both. Biden likewise appears not to have discussed Moscow’s pressure on the Czech Republic; nor, for that matter, Russian military violation of NATO airspace. 

Biden could — indeed should — have raised all of these issues. He certainly had the time to do so. The summit talks had been expected to last as long as five hours, but actually concluded after about only three. The two spare hours would have been more than enough time to cover all other outstanding issues between the two countries.

The record of Biden’s news conference indicates that he did not raise any of the additional concerns that had featured so prominently at the NATO summit earlier in the week. What Putin might make of these omissions is far from clear, but he may well conclude that these issues are not among Biden’s priorities. That would be a serious, indeed dangerous mistake that, if acted upon, would be certain to undermine any effort to restore Russian-American relations to some semblance of normality.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.