This meeting, the administration says, is designed to put the relationship between the two countries “on a more stable, predictable path.” Yet, despite repeated statements from the Kremlin that it is open to normalization, progress on arms control and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, it has yet to take a single step that would demonstrate any commitment to these goals. In fact, Putin thrives on chaos.
Over the past five months, Putin’s long-standing disregard of international norms has only intensified. He has arrested and imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — and has now outlawed Navalny’s organization, a clear rebuff of Biden right before the summit. He has launched a new wave of crackdowns on opposition politicians and media within Russia in the lead-up to fall elections, and Russia has been implicated in both the 2014 bombings of weapons storage sites in the Czech Republic and a spying scandal in Bulgaria. Putin’s support has also sustained human rights abuser and airline hijacker Alexander Lukashenko in power in Belarus.
Just two months ago, Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and cut off all access to the Azov Sea, imposing an economic blockade on a large chunk of Ukraine’s exports. The United States dispatched two Navy destroyers to the Black Sea, but then called them back. Russian-backed militias continue to wage a proxy war against Ukraine in Donbas, and Russian troops continue to occupy Crimea, now a fortress on the Black Sea. Taking deterrent actions against Putin is difficult, but necessary.
In direct affronts to the United States since the beginning of this year, we have seen Putin put the United States on a list of “unfriendly” countries, place extreme limits on the operations of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and begin to force Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty out of Russia. He also continues to hold former Marines Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan hostage in Russian prisons.
While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continues to say that Russia would like to discuss arms control, Russia has not made any substantive effort toward nuclear stability. Instead, Russia has demonstrated what a State Department demarche reportedly described as a “pattern of ... disregard for international commitments — in arms control and beyond” for years now. It violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, abused the Open Skies Treaty and continued to develop many new, destabilizing, exotic weapons such as the hypersonic Zircon cruise missile and the nuclear-powered Skyfall missile.
Despite these ongoing abuses, the Biden administration has established a pattern of support for Putin’s malign influence. In February, Biden gave Putin a five-year extension of the New START accord, an agreement that constrains an overwhelming majority of U.S. nuclear forces. Meanwhile, Putin is building nuclear weapons outside the limits of this treaty, which the previous administration had said constrains only about 45 percent of Russian nuclear forces.
The Biden administration has facilitated the Kremlin’s leverage over U.S. allies in Europe by not stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — yet another Putin victory. In the past, the Russian regime has used its leverage over Europe’s energy supply to exert its political aims throughout Europe, almost always at Ukraine’s expense. I have been working to stop Nord Stream 2 for years — and have ensured passage of sanctions legislation related to the pipeline twice since 2019.
But despite earlier promises to the contrary, this administration now says the project is a “fait accompli” and has refused to impose sanctions with the power to halt the project at its final mile. In a few days, Putin will be rewarded yet again when he sits down with Biden.
Worse, beyond “rais[ing] concerns where we have them,” the Biden administration has no concrete agenda for the meeting. Putin knows what he wants: an increased sphere of Russian influence, decreased American influence around the world and a recognition of Russia as a major power. To counter this, Biden needs a Russia strategy with clear goals, and with these goals must come potential consequences for Putin’s conduct. Biden must establish specific baseline demands for this meeting and be willing to walk away should they not be met.
Dialogue for the sake of dialogue will only grant Putin the validation he craves. Honest dialogue cannot take place until Putin’s actions demonstrate his willingness to engage in good-faith diplomacy.
The tone set by this summit will determine the trajectory of the U.S.-Russia relationship for the next 3½ years. During the more than 20 years of Putin’s rule, the West has failed to meet his abuses with true consequences. Instead, the United States and its allies have responded mostly with pleas for cooperation. This president could change that dynamic — but if this summit proceeds without a concrete agenda, it only sets us up for more of the same.