Reset, containment, Cyber Cold War, big yawn: Cutting through the hype of the Biden-Putin meeting 

Marc Polymeropoulos, John Sipher, and other experts step back for some cold-takes on President Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin

Over the past ten days, President Biden took his first foreign trip, meeting with our NATO, G7, and EU allies in the UK and Brussels before flying to Geneva for a first face-to-face as president with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House tried to set the lowest possible expectations for the meeting, emphasizing only that it was important for President Biden to communicate his expectations in person — but a lot was riding on the meeting, as there is any time there is a chance to send a message to Putin while the Kremlin remains engaged in a wide array of overt and covert actions against American forces, citizens, and interests.

But did the meeting achieve what it needed to? 

To get beyond the spectacle and the hot-takes, I’ve assembled this selection of comments and analysis of the Biden-Putin summit for Great Power readers, which represents some of the range of opinions I’ve heard from both sides of the pond as we all try to make sense of it — and set our own expectations. This includes longer analysis from Great Power contributors Marc Polymeropoulos and John Sipher, as well as other input from US and European experts who preferred not to be named so they could comment more openly. While you will be hearing more from me on this subject, I wanted to share these perspectives with you to start setting the stage.

— MM

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A big yawn or something concrete?  

Marc Polymeropoulos, former CIA senior intelligence service officer and author of Clarity in Crisis

Let us start out with the notion that President Biden set the table really well before the actual meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. His trip to see our G7 and NATO allies was a perfect signal to Putin that the alliance of the world’s economic and political liberal democracies is back. This was a smart and well-choreographed move — bravo to the White House. The aid package for Ukraine announced by the US Department of Defense was also timely and smart.

So why a summit? Well, in my view, much of it is simply for visuals and optics. Biden surely believed that he had to meet Putin on the international stage. The summit in Helsinki in 2018 between former President Trump and Putin was an unmitigated diplomatic disaster, with Trump siding with Putin over the US intelligence community in terms of whether or not Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections. Both Republicans and Democrats who follow foreign policy have PTSD from that summit — I certainly do. So in a sense, Biden is trying to make things right again, to return the US as a responsible player on the world stage. The optics of a strong US president matter. It is a case of doing the opposite of Trump — and in this case, it is to be commended.  

I am a bit worried that Geneva gave a bit too much to Putin. His great fear — like all autocrats — is becoming irrelevant. Being on stage with the leader of the free world is a boon to Putin. But that is the price that the White House believed we had to pay to hold the summit.  

What did Biden reportedly raise? The big two: continued persecution of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and ongoing cyber attacks against the US. So Biden set red lines. This was all about Biden projecting strength, saying “enough is enough.” In my view, he is practicing what I call a “Defend Forward” strategy. Offensive cyber. Exposing Russian malfeasance globally. Helping our allies on the front lines in Europe and Eurasia.  

Is some common ground with Russia possible? I suppose. Arms control and climate come to mind. The working groups on cyber are a bit ridiculous. We are inviting the criminal into a forum to discuss the crime.    

The only concrete piece I found was the return of ambassadors. Which is about as low-hanging fruit as you can find. And renewed efforts on arms control, which also was expected.

Ultimately, I believe that Biden did well and America comes out stronger post-summit. He raised issues that matter, that represent core American values. But to think that this will change Putin’s behavior in any discernible measure is pure fantasy. Russia is a rogue state led by a war criminal. We must remember that Putin is a former KGB officer, then head of the FSB. So he is an intelligence officer at heart, in his veins, and a devious and crafty one at that. There is no good in this man, no honesty or integrity. He never has nor ever will keep his word. Putin sees everything as a zero sum game — he wakes up trying to figure out how to hurt the United States. This is a game for Putin. He does not care for the Russian people, and certainly is willing to endure sanctions and shame in his efforts to restore Russia to great power status. He is not prepared to give an inch on anything substantive. 

So ultimately after Geneva, we would be foolish to find anything of importance coming out of what was a massive media event. But in reality, a bit of a yawn.  

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Welcome to the Cyber Cold War

Former CIA operations officer

After digesting the reported content of the Biden-Putin summit, it seems obvious that we can all agree now we are officially in a Cyber Cold War. The veiled threats and back and forth between Biden and Putin on the notional crippling outcomes of true nation-state cyber warfare were eerily reminiscent of the classic US-Soviet face-offs in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both Presidents clearly wanted to set the same tone of mutually assured destruction, which also underscored the reality that a cyber arms race has been busily underway for decades — and now fully mature —with little notice or care by the masses. But unlike the black-and-white nature of the nuclear arms race and Cold War, Putin and Biden subtly reminded each other that cyber warfare is very much asymmetric and “good luck proving it’s me!” in the future, even when it’s g*ddamn obvious it is. 

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Nobody got anything out of the meeting except the meeting itself

Former European intelligence officer

Putin is always nervous about people he doesn’t understand, and the leader of the free world talking to him about democracy and climate change was a head-scratcher for him. Trump was much easier for him, because it’s so easy to figure Trump out. He wants power and money. Easy. This confusion over Biden was amusing. 

But nobody got anything out of this meeting except the meeting itself. 

The assessment now by everyone is that Russia is not going to change under Putin. But everyone still thinks we need to have dialogue. Why? What’s the goal? We’ve have dialogue for 20 years and the relationship has only gone downward. 

Right now everyone in Europe is looking at Biden, trying to figure out what he’s going to do or not do. Maybe he himself doesn’t yet know himself. But he sets the course for what comes next. 

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We need containment

Former senior US intelligence officer 

Recalling the first POTUS-Putin meetings of any of our past several presidents, it could’ve been worse. 

On the plus side, the Biden administration did a good job. Meeting with European allies first sent a good message. If red-lines were actually identified for Russia, that will be useful later. No joint press conference with Putin, good. 

I understand and agree with the criticism that a one-on-one meeting was a gift to Putin — and he’s already tried to use it. Putin’s characterization of the meeting as “two great powers” — what a joke. His criticism of race relations and his fear for the safety of the Capitol Hill rioters — gimme a break. 

My reaction is the same to the GOP criticism that Biden was not tough enough on Putin. Pre-Trump they could say they were tougher than the Dems. Post-Trump, not so much.

The key for me is what happens next. If Biden and the Democrats stick to a “low expectations” approach with Russia, and are willing to be tough (whatever that means) with Putin, then that will be good… but the Democrats always seem to lose focus with Russia. We need containment. Maybe it’ll happen. Fingers crossed.

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It seemed like the meeting was all about China 

Senior European official 

There was a third, unseen participant in the room. 

Basically it looked like both Biden and Putin were agreeing that China is a bigger threat. The message [from Biden] could have been: “China will eat you for dinner and we will not stand in the way.” It would be an interesting development. 

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Still waiting on another Reagan

Ukrainian defense expert

The Biden-Putin meeting was all about de-escalation. If Biden is the engine of this, it will ruin what is left of any US influence in geopolitical affairs [after Presidents Trump and Obama]. 

The Russians have a lot of experience with Biden. He first visited Moscow in 1979, three months before the invasion of Afghanistan. They know him, and I think right now they think they will have two good years, at least, in which to continue their disruption and aggression. 

So I guess let’s wait for Reagan again. This is the only option, to wait. 

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The Non-Reset Reset

John Sipher, former CIA senior intelligence service officer

In the lead up to the summit, I commented that the best we could hope for was a boring outcome. Well, we got that. Not much of interest came out of the meetings. But it could have been worse.

Biden has always relished personal diplomacy and was inclined to put his stamp on relations with allies and adversaries. But Biden’s trip was as much about Donald Trump as it was about Biden’s foreign policy. The G7, NATO, and EU meetings were the “sorry about the last guy” phase of the trip, and the Geneva meeting was to impress Putin — “I am not the last guy.”

I was among those who would have advised against meeting Putin (not that I was asked). Putin has been on a winning streak of disruption, subversion, and sabotage with little real push-back from the West — a decade-long form of political warfare. Putin has been consistent in defining and attacking his enemies, but subsequent US administrations have been all over the map —resets, summits, harsh words, sanctions, engagement again, and whatever happened to come into Donald Trump’s mind any given day. Different parts of the Trump Administration seemed to pursue their own policies toward the Kremlin. None of this has changed Putin’s belligerent policies and malign activities.

So, why give Putin the gift of being treated as an equal on the world stage? Why risk “re-setting” relations that could lock-in Putin’s ill-gotten gains? Couldn’t those people who longed for improved relations see that it was the Kremlin itself that could change the tone any time it wanted to? 

There is very little the US needs from Russia — other than for them to stop their malign activities. As I read somewhere in the lead up to the summit, there is no middle ground between the firefighter and arsonist. Hence, no real room for “negotiations.” The onus for better relations is solely on Putin’s shoulders.

But each new American sheriff wants to put his stamp on the job. Those of us who worked in the national security apparatus witnessed this dynamic all the time, and called it “you haven’t seen me yet.” A new big boss would come in and insert themselves into some large and complex problem, thinking that the dummies who have been working on it for years simply didn’t have the smarts, toughness, and good looks to solve the problem. They would personally take the reins to solve the problem, believing the force of their personality would quickly cut through the obstacles and solve the problem. Needless to say, it never worked out that way. 

On a larger scale, this instinct for problem solving and optimism is uniquely American. It is both our strength and our weakness: we think that all problems can be solved, and that everyone will see the righteousness of our ways if we just present the idea to them properly. 

Sometimes it works. Sometimes our size and willingness to tackle intractable issues provides the nudge needed to change facts on the ground.

But there are also times when our can-do attitude and confidence that our views will prevail founder on the shoals of reality. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan come to mind. Likewise, thinking we can change Vladimir Putin is a fool’s errand. He has long shown us who he is, and has built a domestic and foreign policy world where he needs the United States as an enemy.

Putin long-ago concluded that the US is not serious about containing his bad behavior, and that he could weather the predictable weak and fleeting push-back. He clearly determined that living with sanctions and rebukes was better than being ignored. And he was not wrong. Would the US pay any attention to Russia if it were not engaged in constant disruption?

Biden’s words and positive attitude were never likely to change the direction of US-Russia relations. New red lines would mean little. Instead, only strong, coherent, and consistent action — action in concert with allies — will signal clearly to Putin that he needs to recalculate. Only the months ahead will tell us if there is any change in the Kremlin’s math.

Putin fears the same things that all autocrats fear: his own people. Putin needs to cling to power for the same reason all autocrats do: they only enjoy their wealth, power, and often their life only as long as they hold power. He saw his own country fall apart in 1990, and witnessed the fall of seemingly powerful dictators around the world.

If Putin chooses to de-escalate his malign attacks, it will be more likely due to domestic pressures rather than anything that happened at the summit.

Putin is facing a number of challenges, many of which he created. His economy is weak, he fumbled COVID, protests have popped up across the country, and his repressive measures have backfired. Alexei Navalny was a minor irritant, and Putin’s clumsy efforts to murder him have made him into a worldwide symbol of resistance to Putin’s 20-plus-year rule. Likewise, his aggression toward Ukraine has likely turned Ukrainians away from Russia for decades to come, and short-term wins in Syria and Belarus are unlikely to translate into any real long-term benefit.

Whereas Putin in on the offense abroad, he has fewer cards to play at home vice more and more repression. He has few tools to improve the economy. He has created a state built upon institutionalized corruption, wherein only increased repression can keep domestic frustration in line. To cement his personal power, he created a kleptocracy where he can buy the loyalty of powerful cronies. Economic rewards don’t go to the best and brightest, but the best connected. This patronage comes at the expense of the public and economic growth.

If Putin chooses to ratchet down tension with the west (not at all a given), decreasing ransomware attacks seems to me the most likely option. As a career chekist, he is not likely to stop using the Russian security services as his primary weapon for disruption and espionage. However, like the famous troll factory, the bulk of ransomware attacks seem to be coming from private hackers and companies whose interests align with the Kremlin. They are a handy tool for the Kremlin to create chaos abroad while being able to deny state sponsorship. While the attacks may not all be devised and approved by the Kremlin, they are nonetheless enabled by the Kremlin. Putin turns a blind eye and lets criminals and security service functionaries line their pockets. A simple message from the Kremlin that the attacks are not in the state’s interest will likely serve to decrease the ransomware attacks.

Of course, it is also possible that Putin sought to increase the scope of attacks over the recent months so that turning them off could be seen as an easily surrendered accommodation. The escalation and then pullback of forces against Ukraine this spring, for example, helped him secure his meeting with Biden. With Russia, we never know for sure. The overlap of chekist games, corruption, personal grievance, and graft make it impossible to predict. We will just have to wait and see. But more skepticism than goodwill is in order.