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The Putin summit may backfire on Biden

The biggest risk Biden faces won’t come during the Putin summit. It’ll possibly come right afterward.

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles on January 29, 2021, in Berlin.
John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to do two things: to “decide where it’s in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to cooperate, and see if we can do that,” and in “the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.”

That may sound good, but experts warn Biden is setting himself up for potential failure.

That’s because setting “red lines” that can’t be crossed (or else) with an unpredictable leader such as Putin is a risky move. Should Putin later cross one of Biden’s red lines — perhaps by allowing prominent dissident Alexei Navalny to die in prison, or by letting Russian cybercriminals (or his own spies) conduct another cyberattack on either the US government or our private sector — it would be an embarrassing slap in the face to the American president.

“I’m worried about the humiliation afterward. It could be a real political hit to President Biden,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, DC.

Even more dangerous, though, is the potential that Biden could feel pressured to respond forcefully, having all but promised to do so. Although such a move may be justified, it would foil Biden’s goal of better relations with Russia, leaving them to plumb new depths.

All told, the Biden-Putin summit may offer more risk than reward.

“Putin is predictably unpredictable”

In multiple calls with Putin, Biden has stated he wants the US and Russia to enter “a stable and predictable relationship.” It’s unclear what, precisely, that means, but most experts interpret the line as the administration saying it wants Putin to stop targeting America and its Western allies.

Over the last decade, Russia has, among other things, interfered in US and European elections, annexed Crimea, invaded part of Ukraine, foiled US military objectives in Syria, and potentially put bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

That’s why Biden’s main mission in Switzerland is to tell Putin to knock it off, and instead find ways to rebuild trust with the US. As an example of what that relationship could look like, the administration continuously points to how the two countries recently extended the New START treaty for five years.

The problem is that it takes two people to build a “stable and predictable relationship,” and it doesn’t seem like Putin wants to do that.

“Putin is predictably unpredictable,” said James Goldgeier, a senior visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “He wants to keep the pressure on and provoke the West” in part to deflect from his failures at home, such as his inability to quash Russia’s coronavirus outbreak.

What’s more, Putin knows Biden would rather focus on dealing with China than with Russia, which gives the autocrat all the more incentive to seek attention with bold actions.

Putin achieved both of those objectives — annoying the West and remaining in the headlines — in April when he amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border, leading many to worry that Russia was planning a larger-scale invasion of the country. The same month, Biden offered to hold the summit with Putin; days later, Putin ordered those troops back home.

Putin, then, seemingly bullied his way into a summit with Biden, giving him the platform he prestige he craves.

The larger problem for Biden is that Putin’s playbook likely won’t change after Geneva — which opens Biden up to a world of problems.

If Putin misbehaves after Geneva, Biden will have to retaliate

Biden hasn’t said exactly what red lines he’ll give Putin during their meeting. But experts say they’re likely to include Nalvany’s death, another massive government hack, and future election interference.

Take Navalny. For months, the Biden administration has made clear that the dissident’s death in Russian custody is a red line. “We have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr. Navalny in their custody is their responsibility and they will be held accountable by the international community,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN in April.

Analysts believe the US still maintains that position. Biden said during a press conference on Monday that Navalny’s death “would be a tragedy” and “do nothing but hurt [Putin’s] relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me.”

These kinds of public statements already leave Biden with little wiggle room should Navalny die. But if that were to happen after the US president warned Putin directly, to his face, that Navalny’s death was a red line, it would be viewed as a direct affront and challenge to the American leader.

And Navalny’s death is an unfortunate possibility. Putin told NBC News just days ago that he couldn’t guarantee the activist’s safety. “Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president,” he said.

That’s rich coming from Putin, an authoritarian leader with a firm grip on his country’s security services. After all, US intelligence recently concluded that the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny in 2020 was orchestrated by a Russian intelligence agency, and analysts say such an operation wouldn’t have happened without the dictator’s explicit approval.

All of this means Biden would have little choice but to respond to Navalny’s death in a major way, likely with harsh sanctions in concert with the US’s European allies. He made similar moves in April in response to the Kremlin’s election interference and government hacking.

But therein lies the rub: Those penalties didn’t change Putin’s behavior, and experts say future ones probably won’t either. The retaliation would be justified, they note, but not necessarily effective.

“There are only so many sanctions and expulsions you can do,” said Brookings’s Goldgeier. “They’re not really major tools at this point.”

Biden, then, has backed himself into a corner. He’s headed to Geneva in hopes of convincing Putin to change his ways. But if he fails to persuade the Russian, as analysts expect, Wednesday’s summit could simply set up a worse future between the US and Russia.

“Hope is not a plan,” said Goldgeier.

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