Takeaways from the Biden-Putin Summit

Breakfast With Bwana

By Anil Madan

Following his meeting with President Putin, U.S. President Biden declared: “I did what I came to do.” That begs the question, what exactly did Joe Biden come to do in Geneva at his meeting with Putin?

In the course of his post-summit remarks, Biden said: “There wasn’t any strident action taken. It was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere — that is too much of what is going on.”

That all sounds very good. Clearly, there is little traction for Biden to gain by proclaiming that he threatened Putin whose reaction to such a boast would be predictable dismissal and a possibly provocative move to show that he was unbowed by such threats. But it is not accurate either. In what must have been a deliberate disclosure, Biden revealed a not-so-subtle threat that he made to Putin.

Biden-Putin Summit. Pic – aljazeera.com

First, some background. Biden had already stated repeatedly, both before he left for, and while he was in, England and Brussels, that he intended to raise the issue of cybersecurity with Putin. Biden warned that if Russia’s behaviour in this regard did not change, the U.S. would respond.

Second, in a major policy shift the Biden administration has now made it a national security level matter to protect and defend the national assets subject to cyber attacks. No longer is a cyber attack going to be treated as solely a local criminal offense to be handled at the state level. The federal government has planted its stake.

In fact, Biden stated that he stressed to Putin that nations have to agree that certain infrastructure assets are off limits. He said that he gave Putin a list of sixteen categories of assets that are off limits. This was Biden’s red line. Note that Biden did not ask for agreement on this subject. One might argue that Biden mistakenly gave Putin a list of potential targets. That would be a mistake. The list of areas considered critical is public knowledge. More importantly, Biden is on the record as having personally given Putin notice that certain cyberattacks will invite retaliation.

And Biden seems to have made it clear that the “response” from the U.S. will be a crippling counterstrike on Russia’s major source of revenue, its oil supply business. “I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability.He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant, and if in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond in a cyber way.” 

In speaking with reporters, Biden mused: “What happens if that ransomware outfit were sitting in Florida or Maine, and took action against their single most important commodity, oil?” To underscore that Putin had received his message, Biden also said: “I looked at him and I said, ‘How would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?'” Biden added: “He said it would matter.” 

Biden’s declaration that the U.S. has “significant cyber capability” is, of course, meant to underscore that the resources of the federal government, particularly the Pentagon, as well as various intelligence agencies, and indeed, the entire National Security superstructure will be directed at safeguarding American assets, both governmental as well as private, from cyberattacks. 

Did Putin get the message? One has to think so. Aside from Biden’s recounting of Putin’s acknowledgment, in his own post-summit remarks, Putin went out of his way to compliment Biden and to stress how positive the meeting was. This was somewhat in contrast to his pre-meeting dismissal of Biden as a career politician.

As might be expected, Putin sent mixed signals. On the one hand, he seemed to dismiss the idea that Russians were behind the cyberattacks on American infrastructure. Indeed, he seemed to want to shift the blame to Americans and others—anyone but Russians—for the attacks. On the other hand, the sudden shift in showing a new level of respect for Biden seemed clearly to be a mask covering a message well received. After all, since the Cuban Missile Crisis, no American President has made such a direct threat. Biden underscored that he knows exactly what he is doing when he mentioned disruption of the flow of Russia’s oil which is its primary source of revenue. 

It must be kept in mind that Russia’s deal to supply gas to Germany, another major source of revenue for Putin, is included in this threat.Biden had seemingly secured at least the implicit blessing of the German government to escalate his threat to this level. Biden was careful to append to his trip to England for the G-7 meeting, visits to the NATO summit and to the European Council for the E.U. Summit. He sought to emphasize that he was speaking not only for the U.S. but for Europe, indeed, for all democracies as well.

One has to contrast this forceful threat of a direct cyber response from the U.S. with Biden’s more generic description of adverse consequences to standing and prestige that Putin and Russia would face if they were perceived as unwilling to comply with international norms of conduct and decency.

So, that is the major takeaway from this Biden-Putin summit. Biden went to Geneva to tell Putin that he will be held accountable for cyberattacks and ransomware attacks on American businesses and that certain kinds of conduct are off limits. The message seems to have been received. Certainly, let us hope that it has been received. Time will tell.

The rest of the Biden-Putin summit seems to have been fluff. In the final analysis, Putin reverted to his whataboutisms when it came to the jailing of Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. He sought to compare that to the arrest of the insurrectionist rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. As well, Putin dismissed questions about being called a killer by referencing the killing of George Floyd, and of innocent civilians in Afghanistan by drone attacks. Putin dispatches questions about Navalny by reducing the matter to one of simple law enforcement. Just as the U.S. had the right to arrest lawbreakers, so did Russia have the right to bring Navalny to justice.

In the final analysis, Biden’s statement to Putin that the U.S. will continue to protest his conduct on human rights “because that’s who we are” seems an unnecessary explanation. It would have been far better to say: “We protest because what you are doing is wrong.”

Biden’s appeals to Putin’s self-interest and to Russia’s self-interest also seem a waste of time. If Putin has not been able to discern those truths that seem so self-evident to Americans for the past 20 years, a three-hour meeting in Geneva is hardly the answer.


* Published in print edition on 18 June 2021

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