Vladimir Putin spent much of 2020 orchestrating a brazen influence campaign to stop Joe Biden from becoming the 46th President of the United States. Failing at that, the Russian autocrat spent the first five months of Biden’s term presiding over a series of attacks by criminal organizations and state-led agencies against America’s gas and food supplies at home, and its allies and values abroad. The unspoken question facing the U.S. President when he sits down with Putin on June 16 in a lakeside hotel in Geneva is this: What are you going to do about it?
Taking a page from America’s successful decades-long strategy against the Soviet Union, Biden is planning to rally allies at the G-7 summit in the U.K. and at the NATO confab in Belgium to present a united front against Moscow. Biden’s eight-day foreign trip—his first as President—was originally planned as a sedate expedition to reconnect with old friends and discuss strategies for managing climate change and China’s global rise. But the recent ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods’ meat-processing plants, allegedly by criminal hackers acting with Moscow’s tacit approval, “changed the calculation,” says a senior Biden Administration official. “These guys are running wild, and they think Biden can be taken advantage of.”
Now Biden is preparing to get tough when he sits down in Geneva with Putin for the first time as President. Among the moves he and his team have weighed to show he means business: reminding Putin that the U.S. has its own cyberabilities and can target Putin’s personal overseas fortunes. Biden hopes to amplify both threats by speaking for U.S. allies as well, and to back Putin down from these provocations. “The whole goal is to have [Putin] come away saying, ‘The Americans are onto us and have us encircled,’” the official says.
It won’t be easy. Putin has played a weak hand well. Russia’s commodity-based economy has been stagnating, and that in turn has fed seething discontent. That may be incentive for raising Russia’s profile abroad, exploiting U.S. missteps in the Middle East and the chaos that Donald Trump created in the U.S. and abroad. Putin has wielded Russia’s expertise in cyberwarfare and disinformation to launch asymmetric attacks against his opponents in Europe and the U.S.
Biden’s mission in Geneva is not about a personal test of wills. It’s about halting this risky escalation and getting the U.S. and Russia back on stable footing, Administration officials say. No two countries have more nuclear missiles ready to launch than Russia and the U.S. Under Trump, key treaties between the nations and lines of communication fell into disuse. “What’s glaringly missing and dangerous, and what was decimated under Trump, was work on strategic stability,” says a senior State Department official. “We’ve lost all these treaties that were designed to keep this stuff locked down.”
Ten years ago, things looked a lot different. In March 2011, Biden traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin, who had temporarily stepped aside as President and was holding the title of Prime Minister. Biden, there to foster closer ties with Russia as Vice President, said he wanted to encourage business between the nations as part of the ongoing push to “reset” relations. Quoting a Russia-based Boeing official, Biden said during a meeting, “Russia has the best engineers in the world. Russia has intellectual capital. Russia is a great nation.”
Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, poisoned dissidents with chemical weapons, expanded a proxy war in Syria, meddled in two U.S. elections and stepped up its cyberoffensives. Diplomatic and consular channels between the countries have withered. Russia says it will permanently cut off local hires at the U.S. embassy in Moscow by August in retaliation for U.S. sanctions over Russia’s 2020 election interference and involvement in the massive SolarWinds cyberattack, which siphoned off sensitive data from U.S. federal government computers and major global companies. By March 2021, when an ABC News interviewer asked if he thinks Putin is “a killer,” Biden bluntly said, “I do.”
Part of what has made Putin’s aggression so hard for the U.S. to counter is his use of cybercriminals. Accused Russian hackers, like those who took down the Colonial Pipeline computers for six days in May, sparking East Coast fuel shortages, may not have acted directly at the behest of Moscow, but often work with its implicit approval, U.S. officials say. When JBS Foods was hacked in late May, the FBI tracked it to one of many criminal networks operating with impunity in Russia.
Striking back carries its own risks. Russia has more experience in cyberwar and has penetrated U.S. government and electrical-grid networks. “We might lose an escalation,” says the senior Biden Administration official.
There is also the matter of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, a growing portion of which isn’t covered by any nuclear treaty. Only one of several Cold War treaties governing U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles remains in effect. Biden renewed that agreement, called New START, on Feb. 3, but only for five years. “This is one domain where they are America’s equal,” says Samuel Charap, a former State Department official and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
Although Biden is planning to talk tough in Geneva, the goal is to ease tensions and establish predictability on both sides by reining in Putin’s adventurism. Much of Biden’s preparation, three senior Administration officials say, has taken place during his daily intelligence briefing. The leading figure there has been CIA Director William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who worked for Secretary of State James Baker during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Burns and others advocate a return to the Cold War containment of Moscow’s moves. “Everywhere [Putin] goes he must meet resistance,” the senior Administration official says.
Biden is qualified to lead the approach. He’s spent decades in debates on U.S.-Russian relations as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as VP. Asked how much time the President has spent preparing for the trip, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “He’s been getting ready for 50 years.”
In the end, that may be Biden’s clearest advantage as he faces Putin once again. When George W. Bush invited Putin to his Texas ranch after becoming President in 2001, Bush said he trusted Putin and he was able to get a “sense of his soul.” Biden has seen more of Putin over the past 20 years—and he doesn’t trust him. In fact, Biden said earlier this year, he, too, has looked into Putin’s eyes, and doesn’t think he has a soul. Putin’s retort, Biden told ABC, was that the men “understand each other.” Heading into a tense summit, there are worse places to start. —With reporting by
Leslie Dickstein and Alejandro de la Garza/New York; and Massimo Calabresi/Washington
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