Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, said that more must come out of Wednesday’s face-to-face meeting than a simple discussion. But Putin is unlikely to agree substantially to cutting back his aggressive activities, diplomats say, and may not even acknowledge that they’re occurring.
“It would be nice to have a ‘stable relationship,’ ” McFaul said, using a phrase favored by the administration. “But when that fails, you need to have a fallback Plan B.”
He added, “Remember, President Biden asked for this meeting; Putin didn’t ask for this meeting. . . . That creates pressure on President Biden to have something come out of the meeting besides just a photo opportunity for Putin.” Some Russian officials have been setting the stage by mocking Biden’s mental abilities.
Biden has imposed sanctions on Russia for its cyberattacks and election interference, and he said last week that he will take action whenever Russia engages in “harmful activities.” But he also acknowledged the limits of his power.
“There’s no guarantee you can change a person’s behavior or the behavior of his country,” Biden told reporters Sunday. “Autocrats have enormous power, and they don’t have to answer to a public. And the fact is that it may very well be if I respond in kind — which I will — that it doesn’t dissuade him and he wants to keep going.”
It is hard to overstate the stakes for Biden of this first in-person meeting with a geopolitical adversary. A central theme of his presidency is that democracies do a better job for their people than autocracies, and Putin is among the world’s leading challengers to that idea. Biden also is intent on showing that the United States has moved on from the Trump era’s tolerance of authoritarians, and this is a pivotal moment for that effort.
Specifically, Biden aims to show that he will not defer to Putin as President Donald Trump did. Trump dismissed intelligence findings that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, publicly accepting Putin’s denials at a summit in Helsinki. In 2017, when Fox host Bill O’Reilly asked Trump about Putin’s record as a killer, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
In contrast, Biden, asked by ABC news in March whether Putin was a killer, pointedly answered in the affirmative. And at a Memorial Day ceremony on May 30, Biden said he would tell the Russian leader when they met that the United States “will not stand by and let him abuse” human rights.
But the United States and its allies in Europe have struggled to get Putin to change his aggressive approach. Sanctions and summits have failed to persuade him to soften his military threat to Ukraine. Russia sought to interfere in the U.S. election in 2020 as it did in 2016, intelligence officials say. On Wednesday, as Biden was arriving in Britain, a Russian court outlawed the organization founded by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a less-than-subtle signal that Putin will not easily be swayed.
And sanctions have their limits. Last month, the administration decided against sanctioning the Russian company behind the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, concluding that it would destabilize relations with Russia and the European countries that will receive fuel from the pipeline.
Few issues better illustrate Biden’s problem than the recent ransomware attacks on U.S. companies by cybercriminal collectives in Russia. In May, one such attack targeted Colonial Pipeline, temporarily disrupting fuel supplies in parts of the United States, and several weeks later, another attack hit the largest meat producer in the world, forcing it to briefly shut down all of its U.S. beef plants.
The president has said the ransomware incursions are unacceptable but has not yet announced any consequences. Still, the audacity of the attacks has increased pressure on Biden to make a forceful response.
“We have to make sure that new technologies and norms of conduct in cyberspace are established — including addressing the growing threat of ransomware attacks — that are governed by our democratic values, not by the autocrats who are letting it happen,” Biden told the U.S. troops at RAF Mildenhall, a Royal Air Force base in England, previewing a part of his agenda at the Group of Seven meeting that began Friday.
Putin is likely to be dismissive, however. Asked in a 2018 interview with NBC why Russia was not arresting hackers believed to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, Putin replied, “If they did not break Russian law, there is nothing to prosecute them for in Russia.”
At an economic forum in St. Petersburg this month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is not the only country where hackers exist, and Putin told a state television channel that the idea that Russian cybercriminals attacked a pipeline and a meat-processing company is “nonsense” and “just laughable.”
“The cyberattacks are absolutely the wild card in the relationship that could make everything much worse,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm. “We are going to need to put more pressure on Russia to take action on it, and it’s unclear if Putin cares — and it’s unclear if Biden is prepared to push him hard enough.”
Meanwhile, Putin has not hesitated to counter Biden’s signals with his own. Russian state media has tried to portray the 78-year-old Biden as weak and frail by juxtaposing video of him stumbling on the stairs to Air Force One in March against footage of Putin, 68, driving an all-terrain vehicle in Siberia.
After Biden agreed during the ABC News interview that Putin was a killer, some Russian lawmakers questioned Biden’s mental health. Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, said that “time hasn’t spared” Biden and cited Sigmund Freud as saying, “Nothing costs so much in life as illness and stupidity.”
Putin has been more reserved in his own comments. But in a Kremlin show of trolling, he waited until 306 electors had formally voted for Biden before congratulating him on winning the presidency, which analysts saw as an attempt to grant legitimacy to Trump’s baseless claims that the election was marred by fraud.
In response to the “killer” label, Putin responded with a Russian schoolyard rhyme essentially equivalent to: “I know you are, but what am I?”
And he has reiterated his long-standing message that American complaints about human rights are hypocritical. In response to Biden’s announced intention to press him on Russia’s treatment of Navalny and political protesters, Putin cited the U.S. prosecution of rioters who took part in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, calling them “not looters or thieves” but people who “came with political requests.”
Then on Thursday, news broke that Russia was preparing to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system that will enhance Tehran’s spying abilities and give it the capability to track possible military targets across the Middle East and beyond.
Trump, too, seems intent on trying to complicate Biden’s meeting with Putin. In a statement Thursday, Trump touted his own meeting with Putin in Helsinki as “great and very productive,” and he offered a parting shot at his successor: “Good luck to Biden in dealing with President Putin — don’t fall asleep during the meeting, and please give him my warmest regards!”
While Biden said last week that his meeting with Putin will enable him to “let him know what I want him to know,” some analysts suggested Putin is likely to be impervious to Biden’s communication style. “Biden’s superpower has always been his empathy” and ability to connect with people, Bremmer said, but Putin is “not a warm and fuzzy leader,” adding that the Russian president has become “even more cynical about the United States.”
Because one of Biden’s aims is simply to signal a tougher stand, the White House is likely to cast any strong showing by the president as a success, even if the meeting yields no specific breakthroughs.
“It’s simultaneously very high-stakes while also there is very little at stake” because neither side is trying to score a big achievement, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia and Europe expert at the Center for a New American Security. “And it’s also top of mind that the two countries have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world, and we have fundamentally different views of the world.”
McFaul noted that Putin has long experience staring down American presidents at summits, which he said could give him an advantage over Biden. “This isn’t his first rodeo. He’s been here before, and that creates the first asymmetry between them,” McFaul said.
Biden is the first president in years who has not declared an intention to reset U.S.-Russian relations in part by forming a stronger bond with Putin. The Russian leader has proved himself a master at persuading American presidents that they can work with him, only to keep Russia on fundamentally the same course.
Most famously, President George W. Bush, after his first meeting with Putin in 2001, reported that “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Then-Vice President Biden apparently had that comment in mind when he met Putin in 2011 and, by his own account, told the Russian leader, “I don’t think you have a soul.”
Despite such rhetoric, Biden has stressed his openness to working with Putin on areas of shared interest, saying that the United States is “not seeking conflict with Russia.”
U.S. allies and diplomats say the timing of the meeting — directly after Biden’s participation in meetings of the G-7, NATO and the European Union — will enable the president to convey the concerns not just of the United States but also of the coalition of Western democracies more broadly.
“The fact that he meets with Putin after he’s met with us is much better than the other way around,” said Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the United States.
As part of the meeting, the Biden administration is looking to put some “guardrails” in place with Russia and is hoping to announce an agreement for arms control talks, said Kendall-Taylor, who co-hosts the podcast “Brussels Sprouts.”
The administration acted within weeks of taking office to extend the New START agreement limiting deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that treaty is set to lapse in 2026 unless it is renegotiated.
“Priority number one is just to establish lines of communication at all levels,” Kendall-Taylor said. “This administration is concerned about the risk of conflict between the United States and Russia, that we operate in close proximity around the world and there is always the risk of misunderstandings.”