Biden’s hardball diplomacy a welcome change from Trump’s appeasement of Putin
The contentious Biden-Putin summit ended inconclusively on June 16, 2021, in the tranquil 18th century villa La Grange, surrounded by rose bushes, overlooking the serene waters of Lake Geneva.
Before the meeting, the rhetoric between Biden and Putin was heated. On March 16, 2021, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC, Biden said that Putin is "a killer" without a "soul," and Putin recalled his ambassador in angry response, insinuating that Biden was a hypocrite. The United States also withdrew its ambassador. Ten years before that, Vice President Biden, at the Kremlin, told the then Prime Minister Putin that he thought he had no soul.
Biden's stance prior to the meeting was chilly. He opted for a solo press conference, an unusual practice at a summit between countries—even for adversaries. Per Biden's wishes, the summit handlers also did not arrange any joint meals between the men, despite ample time and opportunity. And Putin himself lowered expectations for any diplomatic breakthroughs.
Put mildly, the summit began with pessimistic undertones. Biden's wish list included setting up "red lines" against interference in US elections and ransomware extortion of American businesses. Agenda items also included nuclear arms control, discussions of Russian violations of human rights (including the jailing of political dissident Alexei Navalny), Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and military operations in industrialised Eastern Ukraine, and Russia's military and political interference in Syria and Belarus.
In contrast to the prior administration, Biden has appeared to take the hacking of American interests seriously. Recent ransomware attacks by the cybercriminal group DarkSide forced Colonial Pipeline Company, which runs the largest refined oil pipeline in the United States, to shut down its operations, and disrupted the business of JBS, the United States' largest beef processing company. Both companies had to pay steep ransoms (Colonial Pipeline USD five million and JBS USD 11 million) in cryptocurrency.
The Biden administration's response was firm. The FBI recovered a large portion of Colonial's payment—USD 2.3 million in cryptocurrency. Biden issued stern warnings to DarkSide and added that Russia has "some responsibility" to address the ransomware attack. DarkSide admitted its involvement but Putin denied any role on Russia's part. The group was knocked off of its web hosting platform and cryptocurrency from an account the group uses to pay affiliates was drained. They have supposedly disbanded—for now. DarkSide may not have worked directly under Russian intelligence agencies, but it is alleged that they certainly had their collective blessings, so long as the hacks did not negatively impact Russian interests. Aboard Air Force One on June 10, Biden's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan assured reporters that the President would discuss recent ransomware attacks during his meeting with Putin in Geneva.
It was a different world during Trump's presidency. In March 2020, Cozy Bear, a cybercriminal group with ties to Russian Intelligence, hacked software released by SolarWinds, an American network monitoring company that services several major US government agencies and corporations, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy and Microsoft Corporation. After a few weeks of tone-deaf silence of "The Stable Genius," and after US intelligence agencies concluded that there was likely a link between the hack and Russia, Trump deflected the blame to China via a December 19 tweet.
Trump's tweets and actions during his presidency included a curious, consistent pattern of Russian appeasement.
In Syria, for example, Trump abandoned America's most loyal regional ally in the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurds, defying the recommendations of his security experts and military generals. This allowed Russia to secure the rule of Bashar al-Assad, ally of the United States' perennial foe, Iran.
Trump regularly turned a blind eye to (and seemingly facilitated) Russia's persistent, illegal attempts to extend its hegemony into Ukraine beyond its annexation of Crimea and into Donbas, defying the advice of his administration's own experts and America's European allies.
Trump acted like a paper tiger in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions and its regional hegemony, accomplishing nothing beyond wrecking the treaty that sought to hold Iran's nuclear programme in check—perhaps because Iran is a Russian ally. He made a lot of noise about the Maduro government in Venezuela. Much ado turned into nothing, once again: Maduro and Putin are close buddies. And in Libya, Trump made a friendly phone call to Russian surrogate General Haftar, despite the American State Department's support for the UN-recognised Fayez Sarraj government.
The pattern is clear. In crises, Putin flexed his muscles and Trump retreated to the corner, especially when it came to Russian interests. Trump may not be a Russian asset. But his inaction was.
Biden's approach is different, and it already shows. Before meeting with Putin, Biden built rapport and consensus with the G7, NATO and European Union allies. This placed him in a position of strength on his way into talks with Putin—and conveyed a sense that America had at least the potential backing of the West. Trump, in contrast, shunned European allies and seldom laid any groundwork for diplomacy. Putin apparently noticed the difference, pointedly acknowledging that "care" was needed to work with Biden, who was a "focused" "professional," "skilfully" capable of achieving America's goals. And reports indicate that Biden's communications with Putin were clear-cut. If American interests are violated, there will be consequences. There were few such reports during the Trump administration; they often spoke alone.
During Trump's presidency, Russian interference in US elections was ignored because the interference favoured Trump. In most other cases, appeasement of Russian interests was the order of the day. This damage will be hard to overcome. Nevertheless, Russia is shrinking like the magic piece of shagreen from Honore de Balzac's novel, La Peau de chagrin. All of Putin's mischief reduces Russia's credibility and exhausts her resources, accelerating the drift into rising China's shadow. Depending on how desperate Putin gets, that drift may start to have unanticipated effects on the world stage, including Bangladesh—triggering Cold War de ja vu.
Dr Mostofa Sarwar is professor emeritus at the University of New Orleans, dean and former vice-chancellor of Delgado Community College, and commissioner of the governing board of Regional Transit Authority of New Orleans.