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Understanding Putin's Playbook In A Biden Presidency

 Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via teleconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia. President Joe Biden will hold a summit with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. (Sergei Ilyin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via teleconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia. President Joe Biden will hold a summit with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. (Sergei Ilyin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will soon meet face-to-face. Their last meeting — 10 years ago. Much has changed in the world — and in Putin himself. Understanding Vladimir Putin’s playbook in a Biden presidency.


Ambassador Michael McFaul, director of Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies. Senior fellow at the Hoover institution. (@McFaul)

Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School in New York. Senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. Author of “In Putin’s Footsteps.” (@ninakhrushcheva)

Andrew Weiss, Russia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (@andrewsweiss)

Ambassador John Bolton, chairman of the Foundation for American Security and Freedom. Former national security advisor to Donald Trump. Author of “The Room Where It Happened.” (@AmbJohnBolton)

Interview Highlights

The last time President Biden and Vladimir Putin met face-to-face was in 2011. Can you put us back in that room? What was that meeting like?

Ambassador Michael McFaul: “Yes, I was there. And it may have been the only time they met, by the way, most certainly was the last time. … I worked at the White House. I was … the senior advisor for Russia. So when the vice president traveled to Moscow in 2011, I joined the team. And back then, remember, Putin also had a different job. He was the prime minister.

“And you wisely said, and I think it’s important for people to remember this, a decade is a long time in U.S.-Russian relations. After 2011 is when Putin annexes Crimea, and supports the separatists in eastern Ukraine. And 2015, after their meeting, he props up Assad with military intervention. And then in 2016, that’s when he intervenes in our election. So things have gotten a lot, lot worse since our last meeting.”

On what Putin hopes to get out of the Biden-Putin meeting

Ambassador Michael McFaul: “He’s already thrilled to be coming to Geneva. I just saw their planes on the tarmac, in fact. All his supply planes, I remember them well from when I was in the government. Because now he gets to be on the world stage with the president of the United States. That’s a good thing for him. And I think, second, if there is some tough exchange, he loves this whataboutism game.

“He did it to President Trump, by the way, in Helsinki in 2018 when they met. Which is when we make a demand, he says, Well, what about this? So if Biden brings up Alexei Navalny, I most certainly hope that he does. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Putin talk about the democratic defenders of democracy on January 6th in the United States, as he’s done before. So Biden’s got to be ready for that. And I think he needs to respond in a very strong way.”

On the significance of the back-and-forth between Putin and Biden in the media  

Nina Khrushcheva: “Russia has been on the American mind for a long, long time. Russia is the premier enemy, even if it’s not probably in its capacity, certainly in its imagination. So it has been, you know, if there is a story about Russia, every newscast would start and end with Putin. And everybody is eager to interview him and catch his meanings of this and that. So that really doesn’t surprise me. Here, it’s pretty much the same thing. Is that America sees us as an enemy. So we are seeing America as an enemy, too. And therefore, we are going to catch little details of how Joe Biden walks, or how Donald Trump speaks or how Barack Obama responds.

“So that really doesn’t surprise me. What I find interesting and I wish for America or American leaders [to] stop insulting Putin personally, because I actually think that that damages any possibility of a better relationship. Because if you see, when Putin responds, he very rarely talks about personalities. … I mean, unless he’s asked particularly. He talks more about America as a country, about American-Russian relations and some such.

“So when American leaders concentrate so much on Putin — and that’s why I actually wrote my book about eleven time zones. Because Russia is bigger than Putin. And more interesting, in fact, than Putin. … By having so much concentration on his personality, he loves that. He’s an exhibitionist. He has shown that even in body language and body showing, we’ve seen it over the years. And so I think that is absolutely kind of logical from all the attention that both countries get inside the country. But also with each other, against each other.”

On the best way Biden can approach the summit

Andrew Weiss: I think that it’s really important for Joe Biden to come into this meeting, as he is, with a sense of confidence that the United States is going to come out of this pandemic. It is going to have a stronger economy. It’s going to have our alliances restored, and it’s going to start dealing with the problems that he says are at the forefront of his presidency. Economic recovery, racial justice, climate change. And then reasserting this theme, which has been throughout the visits to Europe this week, of America’s back.

“Putin’s country is in a very different spot. It’s a country that basically gets attention on the world stage by making trouble, by throwing sand in people’s eyes, like most recently creating a manufactured crisis in Ukraine back in March. The Russian capital yesterday was shut down due to a new spike in COVID cases. They have a vaccine that they introduced that is of unclear sort of utility in terms of its impact on defeating the pandemic. And it also is not being taken by the majority of the Russian people. Vaccine hesitancy in Russia is about as high as it is in any other major country.

“So the long-term picture for Russia is quite challenging. They’ve built their entire economic model around exporting hydrocarbons and other raw materials. We’re entering a new phase, which I hope leads to sort of by 2050, a carbon-free existence for the world’s major economies. So Russia is going to be a net loser in all that. The question is, in the meantime, Russia can cause a lot of trouble. And downplaying the trouble they can cause is a mistake.

“And what we’ll see time and again, and one of my colleagues at Carnegie came up with this phrase quite a while ago, Aaron Miller, every hour on the hour, Russia’s station identification is to do stuff to show that they’re important. And most of the stuff that they do involves mischief, and trouble and basically showing the United States that they can do things that make us deal with them on a peer-to-peer basis, even if they’re not an actual peer.

“And that’s the problem for the Bush administration, is can they eke out a relationship that will both limit Russia’s bad instincts, and then hopefully identify a couple of areas like the Iran nuclear deal and maybe find some ways to cooperate with them. And that is going to be, for the most part, doable. It’s not going to be very gratifying. It could eat up a ton of bandwidth. But the key is to just keep things from getting appreciably worse. And that is not a very sexy goal for a high-level presidential meeting. But I think that’s the most appropriate target at this moment.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “With a Ban on Navalny’s Group, Putin Sends Clear Message to Biden” — “A Russian court on Wednesday designated Aleksei A. Navalny’s political movement as an extremist network, a remarkable move that sent a message to President Biden ahead of his meeting next week with President Vladimir V. Putin: Russian domestic affairs are not up for discussion.”

Bloomberg: “Putin Warns U.S. May Regret Using Dollar as Sanctions Weapon” — “President Vladimir Putin said Russia doesn’t want to stop using the dollar as he accused the U.S. of exploiting the currency’s dominance for sanctions and warned the policy may rebound on Washington.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: Joe Biden: My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies” — “On Wednesday, I depart for Europe on the first foreign travel of my presidency. … So, when I meet with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, it will be after high-level discussions with friends, partners and allies who see the world through the same lens as the United States, and with whom we have renewed our connections and shared purpose.”

U.S. News & World Report: “Russia Adds U.S. to ‘Unfriendly Country’ List” — “The Russian government on Friday formally categorized the U.S. as an ‘unfriendly country’ in retaliation for new American sanctions last month.”

Foreign Policy: “Putin Is No Unicorn” — “Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, is often portrayed in the West as a three-dimensional chess grandmaster playing the world with one hand tied behind his shirtless back. No other world leader has captured imaginations quite like him.”

Lawfare Blog: “It Is Time to Stop Looking for a Reset With Russia” — “On April 15, President Biden issued an executive order authorizing sweeping new sanctions against Russia in response to Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the SolarWinds hack.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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