The Sunday Telegraph

The Putin meeting is a huge risk for naive Biden

- JOHN BOLTON John Bolton is a former US national security adviser

Joe Biden’s first summit with Vladimir Putin this week comes relatively early in his new administra­tion – so early it is fair to ask whether Biden is ready for it. If he does not yet know his goals regarding Russia and how to achieve them, far better to wait than to risk making pronouncem­ents untethered to reality.

Since his inaugurati­on, Biden has engaged in a random walk. He has, variously, called Putin “a killer”; gratuitous­ly extended the deeply flawed New START arms-control agreement; imposed sanctions for Russia’s chemical-weapons attack against opposition leader Alexei Navalny; waived economic sanctions that would have stopped Nord Stream II, Russia’s undersea gas pipeline to Germany; responded inadequate­ly to Russia’s egregious “Solar Winds” computer hack, and others; and sanctioned Russia for interferin­g in Ukraine, while stressing how restrained these measures were.

Biden says he wants “a stable, predictabl­e relationsh­ip” between Moscow and Washington, but his actions and statements to date reveal no gyroscope. Accordingl­y, while the Geneva summit may produce new American initiative­s, don’t count on it. Putin is no novice, and the odds favour him springing new Russian gambits – for example, articulati­ng his framework to negotiate New START’s successor. There is no indication that Biden is prepared to respond on this critical strategic issue between the two countries, one enormously important to the UK and other nuclear-weapons states.

In domestic political terms, Biden wants to be seen as tougher on Russia than his predecesso­r, which is not hard to do rhetorical­ly. Donald Trump was unwilling to criticise Russia for fear of giving credence to the narrative that he colluded with Moscow in the 2016 election. Trump was wrong politicall­y: legitimate criticism of Russia would have enhanced his credibilit­y, not diminished it. And Trump did little or nothing operationa­lly to stop Nord Stream II, where even his rhetoric was anti-Moscow.

Considerin­g the recent deluge of cyberattac­ks in America, against a major oil pipeline and other businesses, we are entitled to wonder if, without publicity, Biden has reverted to Barack Obama’s dangerousl­y naive approach to cyberspace. The Obama Administra­tion hog-tied potential offensive US cyber operations in a web of decision-making rules that, as a practical matter, essentiall­y precluded significan­t offensive activity. Those rules were changed substantia­lly in 2018. American officials publicly welcomed being unleashed to take steps that protected the 2018 midterm Congressio­nal elections from Russian cyber interferen­ce, and hopefully later ones as well.

Has Biden disarmed the US in cyberspace, and have the Russians taken advantage? If so, Washington is making a potentiall­y fatal strategic mistake. No one is looking for more hostilitie­s in the cyber world, but the way to prevent conflict is to discourage adversarie­s from taking belligeren­t action for fear of the costs Washington will impose upon them. If the costs are seen to be high enough, they will back off. This is deterrence, which works in cyberspace as in all other human domains. Putin understand­s this point, but Biden has yet to prove he does.

After G7 summit, Biden will be attending a Nato heads-of-state conference in Brussels before his meeting with Putin. This choreograp­hy is correct: confer first with friends and allies, and then meet with Putin. The G7 has focused heavily on finally exiting the coronaviru­s pandemic and economic recovery, and also planning against the danger of future biological weapons and epidemiolo­gical threats.

This is entirely appropriat­e, but it is hardly a platform for serious considerat­ion of wider geostrateg­ic issues, let alone for coherent considerat­ion of how to face Vladimir Putin across the table. At Nato, Biden will be a comfort compared with the aberration­al Trump, but no alliance strategy on Russia is likely to emerge.

Other than returning to normalcy, albeit merely on process, what does Biden have to say at such meetings on, for instance, Belarus, a new focus of the bipolar Nato-Russia struggle for advantage in Europe? What is his view on the increasing Russian (and Chinese) military attention to the Arctic? Biden’s Russia policy simply has not come into focus, which is troubling, even if not-quite-yet debilitati­ng.

In short, Biden is taking a substantia­l risk in meeting Putin if he is only following a process of choreograp­hy, while seeking diaphanous goals like “stability” in the Washington-Moscow relationsh­ip. The wily and well-prepared Putin will have a very clear agenda, specific objectives, and the focused attention and energy to pursue them. Biden should hope the luck of the Irish is with him in Geneva.

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