How Biden Can Go Bold with Putin

Give the Russian leader a stark choice—a return to normalcy for good behavior or even more economic punishment from the U.S.

President Biden carries the future of democracy with him on his travels to Europe. He must rally European leaders, reinvigorate NATO with a reaffirmation of U.S. commitment, and lead the G-7 to adopt policies like a 15 percent minimum corporate tax rate that will strengthen support for middle-class and working families everywhere. But all eyes will be on his Geneva meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a meeting President Biden himself requested. In standing up for democracies against authoritarian governments, Biden and his team understand that this meeting may be more consequential and more difficult than any other efforts on this journey.

For several years Russia has waged “hybrid warfare” against the West, with a combination of disinformation; threats; blandishments; cyber attacks; and actual military action in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. Russia poses a growing threat to our allies in Europe. Ever more brazen, President Putin has now declared the right to attack any state deemed an enemy of Russia. This is a meeting that could lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

But the summit also carries an extraordinary opportunity to reinvigorate American global leadership, if President Biden seizes the moment. Previous U.S. administrations have tried to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed. President Trump’s fawning press conference with Putin in Helsinki in 2018 was a global embarrassment and may have represented something far more malign. Putin has been in power for over twenty years; he is a veteran of multiple summits. He has prepared for this one by flaunting his power and demeaning American democracy, publicly criticizing the U.S., mobilizing forces against Ukraine, flouting international law in aviation and human rights, and hosting cybercriminals attacking the United States. Any slip-ups will be magnified by a powerful Russian propaganda machine as well as the “he-said-she-said” balance of Western media.

President Biden and his team say the meeting will be a face-to-face exploration of Putin’s intentions, as well as the chance to directly confront him on these various threats. Wisely downplaying expectations, the White House says that perhaps some progress can be made on issues like strategic arms negotiations and climate change. But the challenge for President Biden is to be firm, tough, and commanding without being personal and provocative—and then making sure the world sees that he, representing all democracies, has come out “on top” in the sessions.

To accomplish this, it seems that President Biden will read Putin the riot act on his election interference, hacking, action in Ukraine, the skyjacking over Belarus, and general human rights violations. Of course Putin will deny, push back, or demand evidence. Then, the expectation goes, there will be an effort to seek something positive, like an agreement on new strategic arms limitation, some kind of compact for the Arctic, and maybe a minimalist agreement on cyber behavior.

What Putin gains from the summit is international legitimacy, a bit of leverage over Chinese President Xi Jinping, and confirmation that Russia is a major world power, on a par with the U.S.

If the summit goes this way, the outcome is little better than a draw. Any U.S. success will be “tactical,” not strategic. Putin can claim he stood up to a bullying U.S., make propaganda about Russia’s concerns for the Arctic, and then go on with “business as usual.” Such an outcome will only minimally allay European concerns. It will not reset relations with Russia, nor tilt Russia away from closer collaboration with China. If the U.S. aim is to stabilize relations with Russia to focus on China, this kind of a summit will provide, at best, short-term results.

So why not go bold? Seize the moment. Make Putin a surprise offer that he cannot easily refuse. The U.S. has the power of its economy and the dollar—the global financial system. After telling Putin that Russia must “knock off” this “war” on democracy, that Russia has no right to a sphere of influence, that it cannot interfere in the internal politics of other states, and that Russia must respect human rights and international law, Biden should show teeth. If present Russian actions continue, the president should pledge to strengthen sanctions against Putin’s associates under the Magnitsky Act, reduce Russian access to the international banking system, including the use of SWIFT, block technology transfers to all Russian companies, and pursue a G-7 plan to revisit and block the Nordstream2 gas project.

Then, Biden should offer a carrot: Explain that it doesn’t have to go this way. Russia can be brought back into the G-8, the U.S. can end the sanctions against it, and Biden can help bring hundreds of billions of dollars of green energy infrastructure investment into the country. Even NATO itself can be reoriented. But the president should be clear that Putin must reorient Russia itself. He must replace potentially violent nation-state rivalries with cooperative endeavors to deal with climate change; the threats of pandemics; and new opportunities in science, technology, and space. Putin must respect the rights of people everywhere. Biden should try and work out a step-by-step process that will deescalate Russia’s actions against international law and the West, and simultaneously, step-by-step, reintegrate Russia into the world community on a new basis of understanding and conduct. He should ask Putin to jointly announce their intent, and have their staff begin work on this “road map” today. If Putin refuses, then Putin’s intent is clear—and the U.S. and the West should immediately go after his personal, illicit funds worldwide.

Of course, Putin would have difficulty accepting such an agreement—he has created a Russian state built on oil exports; the Russian power ministries; and especially the intelligence services and Russian organized crime. But he will also find it difficult to reject. The offer is certainly within the power of the United States, and it is as visionary as President Biden’s proposals at home. It is the best way to test Putin’s intentions. If the offer is flatly rejected, President Biden has still elevated his aims and administration in the eyes of the world. If the offer is accepted, then Russia should commit to good-faith actions immediately.

President Reagan “went bold” at Reykjavik in his summit with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and it changed the dynamic of the Cold War. If China is to be peacefully integrated into the world community, with Europe working closely with the United States, and global attention is to be directed to issues like climate change and public health, the Geneva Summit with President Putin is an opportunity that must be seized.

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Wesley K. Clark

Wesley K. Clark is a former NATO supreme allied commander. He is a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations.