The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin has bedeviled American presidents. Biden can learn from their mistakes.

At their summit, Biden should follow three guiding principles and focus on cybercrime.

Vice President Biden and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 10, 2011. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)
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This week, President Biden will hold his first meeting as president with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’ll be the fifth American president to try to negotiate with Putin, whose hold on power matches his ambition to assert Russian prerogatives and counter the United States globally.

Although Biden’s predecessors adopted a range of postures toward Putin, none proved very effective at engaging with or containing him: Bill Clinton’s relationship with Putin was short and flat. George W. Bush saw Putin as a potential ally in the war on terror and hosted him at his Texas ranch, but critically misjudged the ex-KGB agent’s “soul.” Barack Obama opened with high hopes for a relationship “reset” with Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked caretaker president from 2008 to 2012, but when Putin seized Crimea in 2014, Obama fell back on economic sanctions that have not altered Putin’s anti-Western policies. Donald Trump was preoccupied with currying Putin’s favor, while his administration and Congress continued a tit-for-tat sanctions policy that also failed to reverse Putin’s course.

Biden has his own history with Putin, whom he has previously characterized as a killer without a soul. Yet Biden says he wants a more “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, and with good reason: Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces remain threats to the United States and its allies, while Russian aggression against its neighbors, interference in American and European politics and disruptive cyberattacks have struck blows against the rules-based international order that Biden seeks to shore up.

While past presidents have left Biden with urgent unfinished business, they’ve also left him a potential advantage: He can learn from their mistakes, and he can distill three major principles to guide him in dealing with Putin.

Putin has his own version of reality. And Trump believes it.

The first is that the U.S. needs a narrow set of objectives on which progress is at least possible, if not assured. Beginning from a long list of grievances, as Putin himself did with Obama in 2009, is a waste of time. Prior administrations had laundry lists of objectives and met repeatedly with Russian officials, hoping, often in vain, to find areas of overlap. Biden should instead negotiate around a few attainable goals, aware that he still may come away empty-handed.

Aside from the ever-present need for dialogue on nuclear issues, the problem of ransomware attacks conducted by groups operating within Russia’s borders meets this criterion. The attacks that shut down the Colonial gas pipeline and JBS meat processing facilities in recent weeks were costly in both financial and national security terms. The attacks exposed infrastructure vulnerabilities — and their impact on average Americans — like never before. A business can be wiped out by a direct attack or one on a supplier or partner, while campaigns against major companies can send shock waves through the economy as a whole, potentially costing jobs and reshaping entire industries. Having promoted a “foreign policy for the middle class,” Biden must recognize that Americans can’t afford to live under threat of hospitals, schools and gas stations shutting down because of bad actors operating halfway across the globe.

Moreover, cybercrime is an issue where Biden has a real chance of winning concessions. Unlike election interference or cyberespionage campaigns targeting U.S. government agencies — such as the recent SolarWinds attack — the ransomware criminals operating within Russia’s borders are given a free hand, and are known to have received protection from the security services, but their activities relate only tangentially to Putin’s core domestic and national security objectives. This makes stopping them exactly the sort of narrow, achievable objective Biden should pursue with Putin.

Next, Biden should deliver American demands without the finger-wagging and chest-thumping that has sometimes accompanied past U.S.-Russia negotiations. For example, Biden is right to say he will press Putin on human rights in Russia, but he should recall the experience of presidents during the Cold War, who quietly won the release of Soviet dissidents even while engaged in geopolitical competition with Moscow. Like Soviet leaders, Putin depends on looking strong and in control for the sake of his political survival at home and his influence with foreign counterparts, so any approach that makes it seem as though he is giving in to American pressure or losing in a head-to-head competition will be a non-starter. Biden’s muted public comments on Russia’s connection to the JBS and Colonial attacks, in which he has said that the Russian government was not behind the attacks but has a responsibility to rein in cybercriminals, suggests he understands this dynamic.

The Russian hack shows that our problem isn’t technology. It’s whom we trust.

Finally, Biden should lay out the consequences of future Russian malign actions in clear and convincing terms. Putin, famous for his ability to play a weak hand well, saw right through Trump’s bluster, and knew that when Obama did not enforce a “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Russia had an open field to intervene in Syria. Biden has a strong hand if he chooses to play it: The U.S. is rebounding successfully from the pandemic, and Biden has pledged to fortify relationships with key allies. In Congress, he has broad support for using economic sanctions in keeping with his national security strategy.

These strengths offer real leverage, including over Putin’s political allies. Having expanded sovereign debt sanctions in April, Biden’s administration has the credibility to expand sanctions to debt markets and to the Russian energy sector, which could have devastating effects on the Russian economy. And having met with his G-7, E.U. and NATO counterparts in the run-up to the Putin summit, Biden will be in a position to threaten coordinated action by countries making up more than half the world’s economy.

Biden has other tools at his disposal: After the Colonial attack, American officials announced that they were able to access the hackers’ digital wallet and recover most of the ransom. Senior administration officials have said there are “parallels” between cybercrime and terrorism, and that “all options” are on the table to deal with the threat. Biden should stress to Putin what that means for Russia.

Putin has never been easily maneuvered. But the surest way for Biden to repeat his predecessors’ mistakes would be openly challenging Russia’s president with unfocused, unachievable demands. If Biden instead prioritizes a direct demand that Putin put an end to ransomware attacks from within Russia, backed by the threat of sanctions or other measures, he’ll go a long way toward addressing an immediate threat and demonstrating to Putin that he doesn’t intend for U.S.-Russia relations to remain business as usual.