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The last time an American president held a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin – on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki – was my first day at the White House as Director of the National Security Council for European and Russian Affairs. It wasn’t the usual, everyday day 1 of HR meetings, to say the least. Instead, I was dragged into a maelstrom of endless press inquiries and hasty meetings with fellow National Security Council officials. We all responded to frantic calls from embassies and congressional aides for comments and clarifications on President Donald Trump’s bizarre claim that he seemed to believe Putin’s (false) denial of meddling in the 2016 election at least as much as the United States’ assessment State intelligence agencies.
The decidedly sedate spectacle of the summit meeting between President Biden and Putin in Geneva on Wednesday could not be a stronger contrast to the maddening chaos of three years ago. Russia observers awaited the standard price for arms control talks and renewed talks on “strategic stability,” including discussions on reducing the threat of unintended conflict. What I found most comforting were what Mr Biden said he would stand firmly in defense of democratic values, be critical of human rights violations, protect the free press, and seek justice for American citizens wrongly imprisoned by the Russian government. A welcome surprise, and a major departure from Mr Trump’s Russia policy, was the signal of a muscular response to further attacks on the United States, including retaliation against future cyberattacks.
Critics will argue that little was achieved on Wednesday that would move the needles in US-Russia relations. That may be the case when progress is measured in a single meeting. In reality, this is not how diplomacy works.
In the short term, the respective ambassadors will quickly return to their posts and discussions about strategic stability and cyber working groups will resume. Real, long-term progress, however, will be measured by how consciously the United States responds to Russian aggression.
For example, if America continues to be a victim of cyberattacks, Russia must be stopped from its actions. Ultimately, it is the United States’ response to ongoing Russian aggression that will reduce the relationship back to deterrence. Mr Biden’s statement that the relationship is based on “self-interest and verification” and “the proof of the pudding is in the food” shows that he is aware of this complexity.
Behind the scenes, Mr Biden began creating the conditions to curb Russia’s behavior. In an open exchange – as the statements made during the press conferences show – it seems to be clear that Mr Biden has issued strong warnings. But American officials know very well that it takes far more than hard talks or unilateral US action to contain Russia’s readiness to fight. It will require unwavering toughness from Mr Biden and a solid front among allies – all united and clear in the belief that Mr Putin is essentially an adversary who must be kept in check.
Mr Biden’s testimony will undoubtedly go down well in the U.S. media for a short while, but the picture of Mr Putin shaking hands with Mr Biden is likely to be bored in the Russian state media for weeks and months, in particular before the general election in September.
The clear problem with this is that Russia is taking a victory in public relations, while the US has little to show for tangible improvements in national security from the summit. In a well-rehearsed and tiring script that polishes up his credentials as a world leader, Mr Putin was once again put on the world stage to face the towering superpower of the world.
The Biden government’s short-term goal of using the summit to de-escalate some tensions like building up along the Russian-Ukrainian border, ending diplomatic deportations and preventing the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny made a summit a good tactical one Game. But this one-off summit did little to advance the long-term strategic goals of curbing Russia’s growing aggression and interference in the internal affairs of Western democracies.
The primary goal of US foreign policy must be to prevent an existential confrontation with Russia, given his increased willingness to fight, the propensity to use conventional military capabilities, and the consistent pattern of seemingly misjudging the effects of attacks on neighbors and opponents. US policy must focus on reducing the short-term risks of misjudgment while addressing the ever-growing long-term risk of a confrontation with Russia that constantly tests US resolve.
What is What is needed is an approach that is prohibitively expensive and denies the benefits of Russian belligerence. This contains symmetrical and asymmetrical answers Russian cyber attacks, significantly increased security aid to Ukraine if Russia escalates its war there further, and active engagement with Russian civil society and pro-democratic groups as Moscow continues its information warfare in the United States and the West.
To offset the risks of this approach, the United States must stay in touch with Russia to clarify the grave consequences of further violations. This must go hand in hand with the swift implementation of the promised consequences. There can be no red lines rowed back. (In all honesty, Russia has already surpassed several of them through its blatant interference in our democratic process and cyberattacks.) And this approach must also be carried out in coordination with allies and partners, because Russia will undoubtedly exploit the rifts in existing alliances to avoid any multilateral one to undermine strategy.
The Biden administration may have hoped that by holding the summit it would tick off the unwanted commitment to work with Russia and then move on to the more pressing issues of an over-the-top domestic agenda and the challenges of an emerging China. But as we know, nobody puts Vladimir Putin in a corner; he will continue to demand presidential engagements with Mr Biden, especially since his credibility depends on the assertion of Russian power.
The Biden government’s approach must be a combination of sustained engagement, including strategic stability talks with senior national security leaders from both countries, along with calibrated steady pressure to end Russian aggression. Getting this right without getting into a full blown confrontation is the Gordian knot of the Biden government.
Mr. Vindman is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a Pritzker Military Fellow at the Lawfare Institute, and the author of the forthcoming memoir, Here, Right Matters.. “
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