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Biden Meets Putin: A U.S. Perspective

by A. Altieri D’Angelo

Photo: Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Credit kremlin.ru

The reaction to President Biden’s meeting with President Putin falls along party lines. Most Democrats and independent voters believe Biden achieved what he set out to do. Trump supporters think he made the U.S. weaker, accomplished nothing, and allowed Putin to stand out as a more decisive leader.

To determine whether Biden succeeded, one must look at his strategy for the meeting and goals. Biden went to Europe with a plan to show the G7, NATO, and the European Union (referred to as the Europeans) that America was back, build a consensus that China was a threat and present Putin with a picture of a united U.S. and Europe.

He managed to convince some European leaders of the Chinese threat and demonstrated his commitment to Europe in several ways, including terminating the Boeing- Airbus dispute and accepting Germany’s position on the Nord Stream ll pipeline. The President did these things to eliminate trade friction and increase the European’s focus on China and Russia. He succeeded. And he was able to meet Putin with the Europeans supporting his plan.   

The U.S. President believes that Putin’s actions are driven by self-preservation. He believes he can leverage Putin’s self-interest. Biden stated, “I don’t think he’s looking for a Cold War with the United States. Mr. Putin’s economy is “struggling,’’ he said, and he faces a long border with China at a moment when Beijing is “hellbent” on domination.” In another comment, Biden noted, “He (Putin)…  is concerned about being ‘encircled.” Mr. Biden said.”He still is concerned that we are looking to take him down.” Biden’s strategy is to remind Putin that he is isolated from the West and does not need more enemies. However, Biden recognizes that anyone as focused on self-preservation as Putin, will not allow himself to be embarrassed or weakened domestically. Therefore, any changes that must occur in the relationship must be not be threatening to Putin.

Biden decided the best course of action was to focus his efforts on creating a process that could lead to a more predictable relationship, with no expectation of a reset.

Biden raised many issues such as the cyber-attacks on the U.S., Ukraine, the fate of Alexi Navalny, and other matters. He told Putin that the U.S. would retaliate if cyber-attacks continued. He asked Putin what the effect be on the Russian economy if there was a cyber-attack on Russia’s oil pipeline system. No American President has ever made such a direct threat to Putin. Biden gave Putin a list of 16 off-limits areas of critical infrastructure. He made a similar statement regarding Navalny-Russia would suffer devastating consequences if Navalny dies. He also stated the U.S. would support Ukraine. 

Biden attempted to show consistency and strength while offering to build a predictable relationship. However, he did acknowledge that he would not know if the meeting was a success for several months.

Trump supporters, on the other hand, fault Biden for several reasons. They say Biden gave Putin a pass by not challenging him more forcefully on the cyber-attacks issue. They believe Biden’s approach of setting up boundary lines against cyber-attacks was misguided. And that he should not have met with Putin in the first place or allowed Putin to give a solo press briefing. Lastly, they say that the U.S. is weaker now than before the Putin meeting.

Trump supporters did not offer any suggestions about what Biden should have done regarding the cyber-attacks. They say that by providing a list of 16 areas of strategic infrastructure, Biden implied that Putin could attack anything else. (It is important to note the list of 16 “areas” was not disclosed. However, the U.S. Cyber Security Infrastructure Agency has listed 16 such areas on its website. The list is extensive; it is not clear that there is anything significant to the nation not on the list that remains at risk.

The criticism regarding meeting Putin is bizarre. Donald Trump raised the profile of Kim Jong-un by meeting him in a disastrous diplomatic effort. It was also Trump who deferred to Putin and even went so far as to accept Putin’s word over the opinions of all of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The Trump team seems to have forgotten those meetings. As for the solo press conference, Biden expected Putin to proclaim his innocence and then criticize the U.S. He did not want that to happen in a joint meeting. He, instead, chose to have the last word. Critics say this was a significant mistake; it made the U.S. and Biden look weak.

The criticism that the U.S. is weaker as a result of the meeting is nonsense. Biden achieved all of his goals. The U.S./European relationship is in a better place. He sent a clear message that the U.S. wanted a stable and predictable relationship with Russia and would not tolerate any more disruptive actions.  

Only time will tell if Biden will be successful.

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