Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) shrieked that the planned meeting made Biden look “weak.” Other conservative foreign policy pundits fretted that the summit agreement suggested that Biden needs a better relationship with Russia more than Russia needs to improve its relationship with the United States. Of course, Putin agreed to meet with Biden after the president leveled serious sanctions against Russia, delivered a tongue-lashing over Russia’s persecution of Alexei Navalny and called Putin a “killer.” Some might take that as evidence Putin cannot afford an irretrievably hostile relationship with the world’s only superpower.
As White House press secretary Jen Psaki patiently explained to reporters on Tuesday, “Well, we may have forgotten over the last couple of years, but this is how diplomacy works.” She continued, “We don’t meet with people only when we agree. It’s actually important to meet with leaders when we have a range of disagreements as we do with Russian leaders.” She stressed that “we don’t regard the meeting with the Russian president as a reward. We regard it as a vital part of defending America’s interests.”
Good behavior from despots has never been the precondition for U.S. presidents meeting with adversarial powers. President Ronald Reagan met multiple times with the leader of the “Evil Empire,” and recent presidents have met with China’s leaders despite that country’s atrocious human rights violations, trade violations and other objectionable conduct. Biden’s agreement does not elevate Russia to major-power status (as his predecessor’s solicitations to the North Korean dictator did); Russia is a serious player whether we like it or not.
Summits with these nations, rather than “rewards," are meant to avoid escalation of tensions and misunderstandings, and if possible, to make progress on some discrete issues.
“The notion that holding a summit with the Russians is a sign of weakness is absurd,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official and Russia scholar at the Center for American Progress. “We should, without a doubt, be talking to the Russians, especially after we have just significantly ramped up our sanctions on them.” He added that the problem with President Donald Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki wasn’t that they held the event; it was that “Trump just bought what Putin was selling.” He underscored that Biden’s summit “is an opportunity to identify the few areas where the U.S. and Russia can cooperate and more importantly for the Biden administration to draw some clear red lines.”
Trying to time a summit for a moment when Russia is less aggressive than usual is therefore folly. The more important concerns are what is said and obtained in the summit. Get-to-know-you meetings without preordained outcomes have not proved effective. At times, such get-togethers have resulted in miscalculations and faulty assumptions. Biden has enough foreign policy experience to know that soft-pedaling U.S. concerns to Putin would only embolden him.
One hopes there will be some minimal achievement, even if it is merely a joint statement worked out in advance. But following a president who was Putin’s personal doormat, Biden would also accomplish something simply by resetting expectations and reasserting U.S. interests. Putin needs to know that Biden is no lap dog like his predecessor. In this administration, there will be adverse consequences for Russia’s international aggression, cyberattacks and meddling in democratic elections. Biden can make clear, for example, that the United States will be unable to pursue better relations with Russia should further harm come to Nalvany.
What Republican critics in Congress seem to miss is that, in a real sense, Biden needs to repair the damage done to the stature and credibility of the United States by his predecessor, who clearly encouraged Putin to conclude there were no consequences for Russia’s bad behavior. If nothing else, a meeting in which Biden signals the free pass from the United States has expired may prompt Putin to more carefully assess the costs and benefits of future conduct. If that is the outcome, it will have been worth the trip.