Speaking hard is certainly part of a successful approach. Ronald Reagan used fighting words against the Soviets, describing his Cold War strategy as “we win, they lose” and even making the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. Biden has been clear on how he sees the other side, calling Putin a “killer” and suggesting he has no soul. Compare that to Donald Trump, whose kind words to Putin sparked hawkish rhetoric about Russia from virtually every other part of the U.S. government, and made Trump appear isolated and weak.
But speaking tough also means clearly defining the red lines against unacceptable behavior and what happens if those lines are crossed – and making sure the other party believes you will do what you say. President Barack Obama said Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a red line in Syria, but when that line was crossed he gave up on the use of force. This enabled subsequent Russian intervention to save the Assad regime from collapse.
In Geneva, Biden must not only tell Putin to stop Russian hacking, but also draw clear lines between competition in cyberspace and criminal ransomware attacks, like those on JBS and the Colonial Pipeline, which Biden said. that responsible states must not tolerate. Harsh words only matter if their meaning is clear to the other party, and since the Russians know that the United States will not give up its own cyber espionage and cyber warfare capabilities, the focus must be on on cybercrime, which both parties can effectively agree to crack down on.
The next step is to make sure Putin knows Biden will keep his promises if his red line is crossed. US officials say “all options” are on the table in response to criminal cyber attacks, and Biden himself has promised sanctions. These harsh words are more effective as credible threats of future action. This is why Biden’s decree in April authorizing sanctions against Putin’s closest allies and Russian sovereign debt made it clear that the United States could do more in the future (although Biden was careful to stress that he did not want to “start a cycle of escalation and conflict”).
A difficult message is just the start. Biden must also be prepared to hang in there, through what will be difficult negotiations in Geneva and possibly beyond. In the 1990s and early 2000s, US officials often sought “good” meetings with their Russian counterparts, but got nowhere on the most controversial issues: Russia’s human rights record, corruption and relations with former Soviet neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia. In contrast, during the Cold War, US-Soviet negotiations often began with a limited agenda, primarily on nuclear weapons. But by clinging to long and difficult discussions, leaders were finally able to tackle other difficult topics like the Middle East and even human rights.
Once he addresses the immediate priorities of nuclear weapons control and cybercrime, Biden should be ready for the grueling negotiations needed over the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine, support for the Lukashenko regime in Belarus, and attempts to ‘strangle Russian civil society, including Navalny’s anti-corruption movement. . Biden must be tough enough to resist not only Putin’s pressure tactics but also the political onslaught of Russian hawks in Washington who will say that even talking to Putin is a misguided concession.
Finally, Biden needs to hold on to Russia for the long haul. It means recognizing that on some issues he just won’t be able to get a result favorable to American interests, no matter how fiercely he speaks or how fiercely he hounds on the thorniest issues. In these cases, the key is to maintain sustained pressure over a longer period of time. The non-recognition by the United States of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States throughout the Cold War is a good example of this, as is the American response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In February Biden made it clear that he would not recognize the illegal seizure, issuing a simple and powerful statement: “Crimea is Ukraine.
Holding on is also strengthening American resilience. Knowing that some provocative and destabilizing Russian behavior will not stop, harshness means in the first place to become less vulnerable. The Kremlin reaped a huge multiplier effect from electoral interference, serving its purpose of increasing chaos and internal strife in the United States. He also exploited the gaps in trade, migration and democratic values between the United States and some of its allies. Putin won’t stop unless Biden can lead Americans, including his own party, in the extremely difficult job of rebuilding bipartisan cooperation in Washington, mending international alliances, and restoring civility in public life.
Biden wowed his audiences in the UK with his harsh speech and willingness to confront Putin. But the full measure of Biden’s tenacity will be whether he can bring clarity, credibility, and persistence to the enormous challenge of managing US-Russian relations. Biden will also need the same arsenal of tenacity on the home front to help Americans “build back better.” If he is up to this challenge, then he will have more than deserved the applause of these soldiers.