June 18, 2021 | The Dispatch

What Happened at the Biden-Putin Summit? Not Much.

The two discussed Afghanistan, cyberattacks, and more.
June 18, 2021 | The Dispatch

What Happened at the Biden-Putin Summit? Not Much.

The two discussed Afghanistan, cyberattacks, and more.

On June 16, President Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin met for a high-profile sit down in Geneva, Switzerland.

What did the summit accomplish? Not much. But that wasn’t its purpose. The Biden administration saw this as an opportunity to open up what it calls a “strategic stability dialogue.” The first purpose of this dialogue is to prevent a war—nuclear or otherwise —from accidentally erupting between the two nations. The diplomatic and military channels are also intended to lay the groundwork for “future arms control” talks, as well as other “risk reduction measures.” The Biden team already extended the New START Treaty for five years. This move is intended to limit both countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals, with the hope of expanding the arms covered in the future. But the summit covered a wide range of other issues as well.

Let’s take a look at some of what President Biden said about the face-to-face meeting during his press conference afterward.

Biden wants Russia to abide by “international norms,” but he didn’t offer any good reasons to think the Kremlin will. 

A reporter from the Associated Press asked the president what “concrete” steps came out of the summit, given that the U.S. intelligence community has accused Moscow of meddling in America’s elections, hacking companies and basically looking the other way as Russian criminals hold U.S. companies ransom. The short answer is that Biden couldn’t point to anything “concrete.” He said that there would be unspecified “consequences” for future bad acts and pointed to the Obama administration’s decision to expel Russian diplomats in late 2016. Otherwise, he was vague.

The president used the phrase “international norm(s)” several times, claiming that it was in Putin’s self-interest to abide by them. According to Biden, if Putin does not conform to these norms, then the former KGB man’s “credibility worldwide shrinks” and he would risk Russia’s “standing as a major world power.”

This is unconvincing. Putin has regularly violated “international norms” throughout his tenure, and there’s no good reason to think that international outrage has made him second-guess his choices.

Biden also threw out the possibility of improved economic conditions for the Russians, if only the Kremlin reforms its ways. “I don’t have any problem with doing business with Russia, as long as they do it based upon international norms,” Biden said. “It’s in our interest to see the Russian people do well economically.  I don’t have a problem with that.” The president continued: “But if they do not act according to international norms, then guess what?  That will not—that only won’t it happen with us, it will not happen with other nations.” Biden pointed to Putin’s own comments about the need for “other countries to invest in Russia.”

For Biden, therefore, socioeconomic considerations should convince Putin to change. That argument is dubious, given Putin’s history.

President Biden floated the idea of splitting China and Russia.

In response to a question about a potential new Cold War between Russia and the U.S., President Biden explained why the Kremlin shouldn’t want one.

“You [Russia] got a multi-thousand-mile border with China,” Biden said. “China is moving ahead … seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world.” Meanwhile, the Russians are “in a situation where your economy is struggling, you need to move it in a more aggressive way, in terms of growing it.  And you—I don’t think he’s [Putin] looking for a Cold War with the United States.”

The implication is that Russia should be more worried about China than the United States. There are some obvious problems with this thinking, which is derived from the Cold War era, when the U.S. considered Communist China to be a counterweight for the Soviet Union. (An alternative reading of history suggests that it was the Chinese who used America as a counterweight to their Soviet neighbors.)

Today, according to the U.S. intelligence community, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Putin’s Russia are “strongly aligned” and are likely to remain so. They have some differences, but none of those add up to strategic disagreements. In fact, under Putin, Russia and China have enjoyed what they call a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” They’ve maintained close economic and military ties throughout the first part of this century.

Putin hasn’t opposed China’s military rise, he’s enabled it. Moscow has viewed Beijing as a key customer for some of its military hardware. They’ve also conducted joint military exercises, with Putin even teasing the possibility of an actual military alliance. That may not be likely, but such formal entanglements aren’t necessary for the two to be partners, as Putin himself has explained. And while President Biden raised the prospect of increased trade between the U.S. and Russia—as a carrot for Moscow reforming its behavior—it’s worth remembering that China is already Russia’s largest trading partner by a wide margin.

All of which is to say: While we shouldn’t assume Russia and China always act in lockstep, they are much closer to each other than the West. And we shouldn’t assume that they can be easily cleaved from one another. Putin has obviously calculated that the benefits of his close ties to Xi Jinping and the CCP outweigh the prospective costs.

Biden warned that America’s “significant cyber capability” could be unleashed in retaliation for Russia’s cyberattacks.

President Biden was careful to say that he hadn’t threatened Putin in any way during their private meeting. During his public press conference afterward, the closest he came to issuing a direct admonition was when discussing cyber threats.

“I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability,” Biden said. “And he knows it.  He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant. And if, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond with cyber.  He knows.”

The president drew some red lines around America’s crucial infrastructure. Here’s his explanation:

Another area we spent a great deal of time on was cyber and cybersecurity.  I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack — period — by cyber or any other means.  I gave them a list, if I’m not mistaken — I don’t have it in front of me — 16 specific entities; 16 defined as critical infrastructure under U.S. policy, from the energy sector to our water systems.

Obviously, if Russian actors go after any of these “16 specific entities,” then that is a direct challenge to President Biden’s leadership. Conversely, if the Russians refrain from launching cyberattacks on them, or really crackdown on the criminals who do, then that is a positive outcome of engagement.

The Biden administration has drawn a distinction between two types of cyberattacks launched by Russian actors: those conducted by Russian intelligence for espionage purposes and those carried out for criminal purposes. As I’ve written previously, the hack on SolarWinds is an example of the former, while the recent ransomware attacks on meat and oil suppliers in the U.S. are examples of the latter. The U.S. directly blames the Russian government for the SolarWinds hack and other intrusions by Russian intelligence. When it comes to criminal activity by Russian actors, the Biden team says Putin’s regime has a “responsibility” to stop it.

For his part, Putin denied all wrongdoing during his own press conference. Putin claimed that most cyberattacks are launched from inside the West, that his government has been completely transparent when the U.S. has inquired about cyberattacks, and that America is obfuscating with respect to cybercrimes inside Russia.

That doesn’t sound promising, but both Biden and Putin vowed to keep lines of communication open on the issue.

President Biden says Putin claimed he was willing to “help” with Afghanistan.

The American retreat from Afghanistan is well underway and expected to be completed sometime this summer. Asked if he raised the war in Afghanistan with Putin, Biden responded: “No, he asked us about Afghanistan.  He said that he hopes that we’re able to maintain some peace and security, and I said, ‘That has a lot to do with you.’”

It’s true that Russia has concerns about jihadism flowing out of Afghanistan’s borders, through Central Asia and into Chechnya and Dagestan. Al-Qaeda has worked with Chechen jihadists since the 1990s. and ISIS also has a significant contingent of members and leaders from the Caucasus region.

But throughout the past few years, the Russians haven’t “helped” on Afghanistan. They have undermined the Afghan government by hosting the Taliban for talks in Moscow. The Russians have also likely provided a low level of arms and other support to the Taliban insurgents, who are still closely allied with al-Qaeda. So any assistance from the Russians would be a real about-face.

Curiously, President Biden didn’t say anything during his press conference about the alleged Russian bounties offered for American soldiers. This story is murky – and the U.S. intelligence community still can’t point to any actual attacks carried out on Americans as a result of the purported bounties.

The press made a big deal out of it when President Trump didn’t raise the reporting with Putin. But it appears Biden wasn’t asked if he brought it up during the summit. The Biden administration has said that the Russians should answer some of its questions concerning the reported bounty scheme. However, we are left to wonder what President Biden said about this issue and how Putin responded.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues. 

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Issues:

Afghanistan China Cyber Military and Political Power Russia The Long War U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy