What's Biden look like to Putin — a tough guy, or an easy target?

What's Biden look like to Putin — a tough guy, or an easy target?
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The Biden administration and much of the media have proclaimed the president’s European Grand Tour a great success. President BidenJoe BidenCDC chief clarifies vaccine comments: 'There will be no nationwide mandate' Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden urges local governments to stave off evictions MORE told the world 1) that he is NOT Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE and 2) that America’s Back. His face-to-face meetings were lots of backslapping and welcome-back cheers into “The Club.” At least that’s the illusion. The reality is painfully different.

President Biden had two missions on his first foreign trip: First, to rally our European trade and security partners to join with us and stand together against Russian adventurism and Chinese trade abuses. Second, to convince President Putin that continuing his shenanigans would be met with swift and painful consequences.  

President Biden failed in both tasks. In fairness, however, the meetings were predestined to fail.

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In the weeks leading up to the meetings, Biden gave away America’s considerable economic and military leverage over Russia. When Putin warned Biden in April to keep American naval vessels out of the Black Sea, Biden meekly complied. When the Russians massed troops along Ukraine’s border, Biden responded with … a strong statement. In May and June, when Russian hackers held the American energy and food industries hostage until ransom was paid, Biden didn’t hold Putin to account. Just the opposite: His press secretary blamed the American companies for failing to protect themselves. 

The biggest pre-summit concession was Biden’s personal intervention to lift sanctions against Russia, so that it can complete the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany; he threw cash-strapped, economically insolvent Russia a lifeline, guaranteeing it decades of windfall profits from energy sales to Europe. Even more worrisome, Russia now will have a whip-hand over the German economy. Putin has a long track record of using similar gas pipelines to Ukraine and parts of Europe as a political weapon — turning them off until his demands are met.

By the time Biden and Putin sat down for their face-to-face meeting in Geneva, Putin was delivering his ultimate slap-in-the-face to America. Russian warships conducted their largest military exercise since the Cold War, bringing their warships and bombers right up to the territorial waters of Hawaii and forcing America to scramble our jets. So much for getting Putin to back down.

The dueling press conferences following the Biden-Putin summit reinforced the sense of American weakness. For nearly an hour, Putin parried reporters’ questions, deflecting and diverting, and dispensing Russian disinformation. Some have questioned the Biden administration’s decision to eschew a joint press conference and allow Putin to spout Russian propaganda unchallenged. It was the right call, however, because the alternative was to allow Putin to spout Russian propaganda with an American president standing beside him, looking helpless.  

In his own press conference a few minutes later, Biden announced that he gave Putin a list of 16 critical American industries that are off-limits for Russian cyber attacks. If Putin crosses that “red line,” Biden implied, there would be consequences. What about No. 17 … or No. 18 and the rest? Will there be no U.S. response to attacks against those? President Biden has just given Russian ransomware hackers a target-rich environment. 

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Biden once called Putin “a killer” — and Putin is, certainly. But he’s also a bully, and bullies never stop pushing and pushing until they’re pushed back. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that Putin sees no reason to stop escalating. President Biden insists he has now given Putin something to think about. Indeed. But Putin is surely calculating the odds on whether Biden actually will push back if Russian hackers cross that red line.  

President Biden says he is confident Putin would never do it because he doesn’t want another Cold War. Perhaps. But what if Putin thinks it’s a Cold War that Russia can win this time around?

KT McFarland held national security posts in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Trump administrations. She is the author of “Revolution: Trump, Washington and ‘We the People’.” Follow her on Twitter @realKTMcFarland.