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How Biden Wrangled Europe’s Backing Ahead of His Meeting With Putin

6 minute read

The facade of unity President Joe Biden built with European allies ahead of his Wednesday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin required some hard-headed diplomatic wrangling.

In closed-door meetings during the NATO summit and E.U. meetings, Biden and his aides received assurances from European leaders—some wary after four erratic years with former President Donald Trump—that they would take a tougher stance on Russia sanctions to corner the Russian autocrat and to insist Putin tone down cyber attacks and rein in criminal hacking rings. The U.S. and its allies will also demand Russia pay a steeper price for territorial incursions in Ukraine and meddling in democratic elections in the west.

To get them onboard, according to a senior Administration official and a person familiar with the negotiations, Biden had to tackle a 17-year dispute with the E.U. over subsidies for airliner manufacturing, with both sides agreeing to suspend damaging tariffs for five years. He also had to reassure Germany that the U.S. would hold back punishing European companies involved in a liquid natural gas line with Russia. In return, Biden got a public love-fest that was designed to paper over cracks in the U.S.-European relationship that grew wider during the Trump’s era — and present a united front to Russia. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Before they even happened, Putin brushed off Biden’s meetings with allies as “nothing unusual,” in an interview with NBC on June 11, and described NATO as “a cold war relic.” Putin described Trump as an “extraordinary individual, talented individual,” and Biden as “a career man,” acknowledging the experience Biden brings to the presidency, diplomacy and nuclear disarmament given his decades as a Senator and Vice President.

Biden, for his part, described the Russian president as “bright,” “tough,” and a “worthy adversary” as he wrapped up talks with NATO allies on Monday. He said he plans to be clear with Putin about where the U.S. and Russia can work together, “and if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cyber security and some other activities, then we will respond.”

By the time Air Force One landed in Geneva on Tuesday, Biden, who seemed visibly tired during his final diplomatic meetings in Brussels, was able to walk off the plane armed with a tool box of threats backed by some of Europe’s largest economies to level at Putin when the two leaders sit down on Wednesday inside an 18th century mansion with sweeping views of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc.

Biden’s diplomatic two-step —appeasing allies in Europe to bolster the alliance against Russia— reflects his deep belief that the inconvenient and challenging work of corralling allies into an imperfect union is far more powerful than going alone. The nuts and bolts of Biden’s plan demonstrate his grasp of details and understanding of the long-term strategy he honed during decades of work countering Russia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Biden’s done his alliance homework,” says Matthew Rojansky, an expert on U.S.-Russia relations and director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. “It reminds the Russians they are not just dealing with the United States.”

Here are three moves Biden made, and their chances of success.

Squeezing Russia’s debt

Biden has been working behind the scenes to convince European allies to join the U.S. in targeting one of Putin’s deepest financial vulnerabilities: the sale of foreign bonds that finance Russia’s debt. In a round of sanctions in April, the U.S. expanded a ban on U.S. banks buying Russian debt bonds that has been in place since 2014. But European banks have continued to buy them and sell them on the secondary market, weakening the U.S. effort.

Biden told allies that he’s considering expanding U.S. sanctions to include the secondary market for Russian debt, which could make it more expensive for Russia to borrow. That threat, which Biden has gotten key allies to support, is an “important” part of what Biden’s has armed himself with going into his meeting with Putin, a senior Biden administration official tells TIME.

Getting Europe to make sanctions bite for Russia’s elite

Another “big piece” of business negotiated by financial experts on the fringes of the NATO meetings was going after the billions of dollars that Russia’s oligarchs have invested in European capitals, the official says.

The U.S. Treasury Department initiated new tools for targeting those funds in its April round of sanctions, as well as financial punishments targeting Russia for exploiting the SolarWinds software hack that leaked massive amounts of sensitive information from U.S. government agencies and American companies.

This week, the U.S. worked closely with allies to lay out ways to tighten the enforcement of existing sanctions to freeze funds invested by Putin’s inner circle of oligarchs, and identifying funds that have been invested by shell companies and proxies.

Get Germany to use Russian gas purchases as leverage

One of the biggest strategic concessions Biden made in the interest of eliminating wedge issues with European allies was done weeks in advance, to prepare for this trip. In May, the Biden Administration lifted the threat of U.S. penalties against the German company completing a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Biden continues to believe the pipeline, called Nord Stream 2, represents a strategic blunder for Germany, and that once completed, will give Russia too much influence over Germany’s energy supply.

While the talks around the pipeline are “complicated” and still “in flux,” the Biden official says, Biden has been open to setting his objections aside, for now, in hopes that the U.S. may ultimately convince Germany to shut the pipeline down if Russia continues to escalate its destabilizing cyber attacks and anti-democratic actions. That would turn Germany’s future lucrative gas purchases from Russia into another strategic lever to press Putin down the road.

“This is very intentional signaling,” Rojansky says, “that the days of being able to split Europe, or split Europe from the United States, are coming to an end.”

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