There were simpler ways for the Kremlin to take out Sergei Skripal, including a well-timed shove in front of a lorry in Salisbury, the English cathedral town where the former Russian military intelligence officer and MI6 informant retired after being freed in a spy swap. In 2018 the decision to use Novichok—a particularly vicious family of Soviet-era nerve agents—appeared incredibly stupid or incredibly arrogant. Last August, when Russian agents used Novichok to try to kill Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s leading opponent (he too survived, raising questions about Russian tradecraft), it seemed as if Putin were determined not only to kill off his enemies but also the century-old ban on the use of chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons have little military value, beyond terrorizing populations. For the Russian president, degrading global norms—seizing Crimea, interfering in democratic elections, enabling (or worse) hackers who hold critical infrastructure hostage, using a nerve agent six months after trumpeting the supposed destruction of Russia’s last chemical weapons—is all about bolstering his own power. Nuclear weapons and Putin’s relentlessly creative ability to sow disruption are Russia’s only remaining claims to superpower status. And if the global order looks like a mug’s game, his strongman’s promise of stability is all the more persuasive.
The timing for this week’s summit in Geneva between President Joe Biden and Putin isn’t great, with tens of thousands of Russian troops still threatening Ukraine’s border and following so soon after both the Colonial Pipeline shutdown by Russian hackers and Putin’s ostentatious embrace of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian autocrat who forced down a commercial jet filled with EU diplomats so he could arrest an opposition journalist. The White House, which explained the meeting as an effort to establish a “predictable, stable relationship with Russia,” is hoping to keep crises with Moscow on a low enough boil that Biden can devote his attentions elsewhere: containing the pandemic, rebuilding the economy at home, and confronting China globally. But what if Putin isn’t interested in a stable, predictable relationship with the United States?
Making progress on arms control and lowering tensions along the Ukraine border are both critically important goals, although it’s not clear Putin is interested in either. If Biden has hopes of strengthening the rules-based democratic order (his evangelist’s testimony that “democracy will and must prevail” would sound overheated, but after four years of Donald Trump it is a huge relief), he will have to push back a lot harder on Putin: threatening the Russian leader’s ill-gotten billions may be the only sanctions he will respond to, and challenging the Russians as much as the Chinese everywhere they are working to delegitimize the global rules or rewrite them to favor authoritarians.
Biden is the fifth American President to grapple with Putin. None before him—not Bill Clinton and his wary suspension of disbelief about Putin’s democratic leanings; nor George W. Bush and his much mocked look into Putin’s “soul;” nor Obama and his post-Crimea dismissal of Russia as a “regional power;” nor Trump and his no-questions-asked bromance—figured out the personal dynamics or the mix of incentives and pressures.
Biden likes to talk tough about Putin. When asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos earlier this year if he thought the Russian leader is a “killer,” he answered, “I do,” vowing that Putin is “going to pay” for his interference in U.S. elections. (To ensure it can control the optics, the White House declined the Russians’ proposal for a post-summit joint press conference.)
In practice, Biden has been more restrained. In response to the Navalny poisoning, election interference, and the SolarWinds hack, the administration sanctioned some four dozen Russian officials, expelled ten diplomats, and blocked American banks from directly buying ruble-denominated debt. But it has not moved against Russia’s energy and mining companies or against Putin’s closest business allies or private wealth. In mid-May the White House reversed course and waived sanctions on the company building Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany—a decision officials said was intended to repair relations with Berlin but which will clearly benefit Russia. And the administration missed a June 2 legislative deadline for imposing a second, stiffer round of sanctions on Russia in response to the Navalny attack. (The Trump Administration had to be pummeled by Congress after ignoring the same deadlines.)
In mid-April, Biden phoned Putin to inform him of coming sanctions and invite him to a summit in Europe. Speaking at the White House two days later, the President said he had chosen “to be proportionate. The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.” U.S. officials say that they could do a lot more and Biden, a believer in personal-touch diplomacy, may be waiting to see whether the summit can change the dynamic. Putin has not been exercising similar restraint. In early June Russia-based hackers shut nine U.S. beef processing plants, and just days before the summit a Russian court designated Navalny’s political movement extremist, making organizers, donors, and even citizens who post comments in support of the group subject to prosecution and serious jail time.
There are legitimate questions about what if any punishment would be enough to alter Putin’s behavior. An assessment by the Financial Times published in January 2020 noted that Russia had managed to adapt even to the stiff post-Crimea financial sanctions—while growth was slow and foreign investment had tanked, currency reserves were up and the government was running a surplus—crediting a mixture of “prudent” fiscal policies, import substitution, the creation of a national wealth fund, and “a fat slice of luck.” Navalny’s Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation has been arguing for more sharply focused pressure on Putin’s inner circle and in January delivered a list of thirty-five names to the White House, including several billionaires believed to be directly involved in managing Putin’s vast wealth.
With cyberattacks increasing, White House officials last month reportedly began debating other responses, from mounting retaliatory cyberattacks to publicizing intelligence on Putin’s corrupt financial dealings. The Obama Administration held similar internal discussions in the fall of 2016, when the scale of Russian election interference became clear, but decided to hold back for fear of escalating the conflict and playing into the Trump narrative about a rigged election. Officials later suggested that, had they not been so certain Hillary Clinton would win, they might have taken more risks.
David Kramer, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush Administration and a contributing editor to this magazine, says the Bush Administration (“pin the blame on me”) made a “huge mistake” not pushing back after the 2006 poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko—the exiled former FSB officer and Putin critic died horribly after drinking green tea laced with Polonium-210—and Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. “It gave Putin the sense he could get away with Ukraine in 2014 and Skripal in 2018.” Putin, he says, “will keep going until he runs into a wall.”
Challenging the Trump-Putin Narrative
While Trump could never lift sanctions on Russia—the political optics would have been ruinous in the midst of the Russia-followed-by-Ukraine investigations and resistance on the Hill, including from his own party—on every other front he likely delivered far beyond even Putin’s imaginings. What better reinforcement than the spectacle of an American President mocking European allies, NATO, and the EU and undermining faith in American leadership, competence, and democratic elections?
Biden has tempered his salesman’s “America’s back!” pitch with a bit of realism, acknowledging, if not answering, allies’ “But for how long?” follow-on question. His decision to immediately rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord held undeniable symbolic weight; Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and India’s Narendra Modi were among the forty leaders to attend his virtual climate summit. The biggest deliverable, so far, to come out of his eight-day, four-summit trip to Europe is a pledge from the G-7 to provide one billion doses of coronavirus vaccine to poorer countries over the next year—Biden started the bidding, announcing a deal with Pfizer to provide five hundred million doses—an important corrective to Trump’s every-man-for-himself approach. Still, the commitments are shamefully late and far too little: to date, ten of the world’s richest countries have received more than three-quarters of all of the shots. The WHO has estimated that eleven billion doses are needed globally.
Defending and bolstering the badly fraying rules-based order will also require doing constant battle in more arcane and frustrating diplomatic settings—out of petulance and ignorance Trump ceded an enormous amount of space. For the last two-plus years, the Russians, with backing from China, have been campaigning at the UN for a new cybercrime treaty, one that would inevitably give them and all authoritarians even more license to stifle dissent. In late 2019 a UN committee approved a Russian resolution establishing a group to draft the terms of reference for “cybercrimes,” and last month, with the Biden Administration now engaging, the Russians still managed to jam through a General Assembly resolution laying out the next negotiating steps (even a UN press release described the process as “rushed”).
In April, nearly eight years after the Assad government launched sarin-filled rockets against the Syrian town of Ghouta, killing 1,400 people, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons finally overcame Moscow’s obstructionism and suspended Damascus’ voting rights. If the Biden Administration is serious about defending the chemical weapons ban, it will now have to push the Russians for an accounting of their use of Novichok against Skripal and Navalny—and a revision of Moscow’s claim that it has destroyed all of its chemical weapons stocks. There is a debate to be had over whether it is better to keep Moscow inside the Chemical Weapons Convention—accepting some Saudi-like fig leaf explanation about “rogue” operatives and “overlooked” weapons supplies, assuming Moscow would even make that effort—or demanding a true accounting and on-site inspections, knowing that would certainly lead Moscow to bail. Avoiding any showdown would further erode a badly degrading regime.
Last March, in his first news conference, Biden told reporters, “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” declaring, “We’ve got to prove democracy works.” Much of that will depend on Biden’s ability to face down America’s own homegrown brand of authoritarians. The Republicans’ refusal to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and efforts to rewrite that history are making the job even harder—at home and globally.
Putin—who doesn’t need to get his talking points from Mar-a-Lago to sound like Trump—told a St. Petersburg economic forum earlier this month that the Capitol rioters “are not looters or thieves, these people came with political requests.” A few days earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that all topics, including human rights, would be on the table for the Biden-Putin summit, pointedly noting that his country is “following with interest” what he called the “persecution” of those who have been arrested for their role in the January 6 riots.
Putin will keep sowing disruption and division as long as he can.
Carla Anne Robbins is faculty director of the master of international affairs program at Baruch College’s Marxe School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an editorial board member of American Purpose and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times. Twitter: @robbinscarla
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