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Biden, Putin Set To Meet Amid Tense Relations

President Joe Biden at his desk in the White House
Facebook: The White House

President Joe Biden is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday as part of Biden’s first foreign trip since taking office in January. The meeting comes amid tensions between the nations over a variety of issues including cybersecurity and global influence.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke about the relationship with Jim Steiner, a professor with the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. Before his academic career, Steiner spent more than 30 years with the CIA and focused on Soviet defense and economic issues.

Steiner: I think our current relations with Russia are probably the worst that I have seen in 30 or 40 years. I think we're back, if not in Cold War mentality of the early to mid 80s, we're not too far away from that. And I think both sides recognize that. And both sides have said that. In fact, Russia has only two countries on their unfriendly country list, the Czech Republic and the US.

Levulis: Interesting list there. When it comes to the two leaders we're discussing here, what kind of relationship do President Biden and President Putin have?

Steiner: I would say they have a cordial, but distant relationship. So it's not a screaming match. But it is certainly not the love fest that you had with Putin and our last president, shall we say? I also think there was a realistic assessment on both sides, about the other person. And the fact that especially in the case of Putin, Putin will not change, he will not change until they carry him out on a stretcher.

Levulis: So then going into this meeting, what are some of the key goals that you see that Biden wants to achieve? We'll start with President Biden first.

Steiner: Well, let's step back and what's the grand goal for Biden here, the grand goal of this whole trip is very simple. America is back, America is leading. And we can see it at all the meetings he's had, at the G7 meeting, at the NATO meeting going on now when he goes to the EU summit, and then the capstone being the meeting with Putin. But what Biden is doing is he is essentially getting all the troops together, everybody get together here, so that when I go into that meeting with Putin, it's very clear that the West is back together, and that I'm leading the charge. So that's number one. What Biden also realizes is that fact that Putin is not going to change, so there will be no talk about a reset. There's no grand idea that we'll be able to have a lovey-dovey relationship between the US and Russia. But that doesn't mean that we can't have I think the words they're using now are “stable and predictable” relationship. We know who you are. We know how you operate. We know what you want to attain. You know who we are, let's not have surprises. There are issues where we're not going to be able to work together, you need to understand our red lines, we understand yours. And there may be some issues where we can work together, we'll see. The other key thing on Biden is Biden does not see Russia as the prime adversary. He sees China as the prime adversary. And if you think about it, that's right. Because when you start putting these countries together, the matchup is not right. The US GDP is $22 trillion. Russia's GDP is less than $2 trillion. We have 11 times the size of the economy. Their economy is smaller than Italy. OK? But Putin's tough, he knows how to fight above his weight. And he does so. But China, with a $14 trillion economy, is much closer to the US and the one that we need to focus on. So that's kind of Biden that's where Biden’s at. Putin on the other hand, he wants to be seen as an equal. He had a great relationship with Trump. My personal guess it was more than just a personal relationship. I think there was some leverage there, although I don't have any chapter and verse on that. But he sees the world has changed. And he's going to tell Biden, you've been gone for four years. OK you're back now. You may not be here after four years, by the way, and I will be, but the world has already changed. We are a global player again. And we demand respect. That's the way it's going to be.

Levulis: Getting down to some specific talking points that might occur. You know, this meeting between President Biden and President Putin comes, you know, days after Biden told Ukraine's president that he would stand up for Ukraine amid its tensions with Russia. Now does a statement like that already kind of shut the door on conversations between Biden and Putin regarding Ukraine specifically?

Steiner: Well, Ukraine is one of the most difficult issues. And it falls into our worldview and the Russian worldview. The Russian worldview, in the form of Putin is I would love to put the Soviet Union back together again. But if I can't do that, then I'm either going to reclaim areas with large Russia population, as I did in Georgia, Abkhazia in 2008. And as I'm doing with Crimea, and as I'm doing with parts of Ukraine. In other areas of the former Soviet Union, I want to project influence. But on Ukraine itself, this is where it gets tricky. Unlike the Baltics, the Baltics are now NATO members. And because they're NATO members, they are protected. If Russia were to invade the Baltics, we would respond militarily, there's just no doubt about it. That's the core of NATO. Ukraine doesn't have that. Ukraine would like to be a member of NATO. But we purposely did not bring Ukraine into NATO, because it would just have pushed the alliance right up to the Russians’ border, in a big way. So we are never going to agree on Ukraine. I almost hate to say it, but at some level there is an argument, if you were to have open elections in Crimea, Crimea would vote to join Russia. It's just ethnically part of Russia, it's always been part of Russia. And it's the same thing with parts of Ukraine. But we will never admit that and rightly so because they could have gone through a voting process, and they didn't. So it's a matter of national integrity, integrity of borders. And we will just never do that. Likewise, the Russians will never, I don't think they're ever going to move out, we'll get a line of demarcation and then we'll see what happens. What Russia would like here is to somehow reduce the sanctions that have been placed on Russia because of Ukraine. I don't think they can argue that directly on the Ukraine case, because it's so clear from the US perspective. But there might be other places they can make some accommodation. But it will not be Ukraine. Ukraine is one of those really difficult issues, you're not going to see any movement on that.

Levulis: Moving to another topic here, there have been some major cyber attacks that have impacted sectors of the US economy as well as some certain US government agencies. Now American officials have said that those carrying out the attacks may be in Russia with some suggestion that it's a relative safe haven for those hackers. Now, of course, the American government has its own cyber security measures and interests. Is cyberspace the new proving ground for any relations between these two countries?

Steiner: Cyberspace is the new area, arena for warfare. It is the new domain in military speech, just as we had ground and air and space and undersea. Cyber is the new one. The thing that's different about cyber is we are all cyber warriors, every one of us, because a foreign entity, be a criminal group or a state, can attack us in our homes, on our real property. So you got to have that foundation first. Until we get something like the Geneva Convention, but on cyber, this is going to be very troublesome area. OK now, let's go to Russia per say. Russia engages in two types of offensive cyber warfare, one directly and one indirectly. The direct or the more direct, I should say, because it's not completely direct, is the covert action, the propaganda, the election interference, the trolls, all of that, that we've talked about in 2016 and 2020, the elections. The other is the ransomware. Now, it's pretty clear that those conducting the cyber attacks are coming from Russia. It is less clear that the Russian government has a direct hand in it, but it fits the MO. Putin essentially runs his whole country, especially the economy by having the silent hand in the middle of it, so that those who are actually running companies and corporations and exports, they know they can go so far, but they know they can't do things that are not in the interest of Russia. And they also know that Putin can come to them anytime and say I want you to do A, B, or C. I think this carries directly over into the ransomware attacks. That either we have criminal groups who are working directly for Russia or for the Russian intel services. But you also have ransomware groups that as long as they don't conduct any attack against Russia or the former Soviet Union or Russian allies, they've got cover. Now let's come to the most recent attacks. I don't think it's any accident that the attack on our petroleum supply happened shortly before the summit. And while the Russians were working on a pipeline issue that's critically important to them. So my guess is, Putin actually directed the attack on the pipeline, to time the run up to the meeting, I hate to call the summit, it's just a meeting. If he didn't do it directly, he at least blessed it personally. Because something that would go after such a critical piece of our infrastructure would not have happened without his personal knowledge, and approval. So how do we respond? My guess, and it's only a guess, is that we have already responded, you're just not going to hear about it. US policy is not to talk about how we answer some of these. But you know what, at some point we're going to have to do it publicly, because the American people are going to demand it. American people I think, are getting tired of being a punching bag. And it appears that we're not pushing back. So what Biden has to do at this meeting is put down the red line, and just tell Vlad, ‘I know what's going on. My intel people know what's going on and you know what's going on.’ Which is really a good reason for this to be a very small meeting with no fixed agenda. Because these guys need to be very clear, and frankly, very honest with each other, which will be hard for Vlad, as a former intel guy, he's going to sin things. But if we don't put down hard markers, especially in the cyber world. One last thought before we leave cyber. In a way, the attack on the Colonial Pipeline was a tactical victory for Russia, but a strategic loss. Because our government has known for at least a decade, the dangers to our critical infrastructure of attacks from countries like Russia, or even Iran, China. We've done some things about it, but we haven't mobilized the country. Gas lines, mobilize the country. So I think you're going to see over the next few years, a huge push by the private sector to harden, that is strengthen, protect our cyber world, and might not have happened if the Russians hadn't gone after Colonial.

Levulis: Americans do care about the gas prices, we saw that. We saw that when there was the reported shortages, folks went to the pumps.

Steiner: Yeah, I mean, you go after our gas, and then you go after our meat, Americans love steak man, you start shutting down the beef supply, you're going to get our attention. So I think these were strategic failures on the part of the Russians, even though they look like tactical victories.

Levulis: Now, switching gears one more time here, the case of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has gotten a lot of attention beyond Russia, primarily his alleged poisoning, and now his imprisonment by Russia. While the Russian government has worked to silence critics within its borders, it's also worked to influence the US elections, as we've discussed. Now, this doesn't seem to be an area where there could be compromise with the US insisting Russia completely stop these actions. So I mean, this tends to fall into what we've been talking about, is there any hope for progress on this front? As far as the US is concerned I guess?

Steiner: No. OK. I mean, you just have to be very blunt. If Putin could have his way, he and China as well, authoritarian governments, they do not brook dissent well, and they will essentially, tell the US ‘Mind your own business. And by the way, what about this insurrection on January 6? What about the way your police officers are killing Blacks in your country? OK. Don't talk to me about human rights. Don't talk to me about democracy, with your flawed elections.’ And you see where I'm going. This is, you know, the popular phrase is, “what-if-ism.” What about what you've done? In other words, that's the way Putin's going to respond to that. And there's no way we're going to get Putin to loosen up on his opposition. That's just too fundamental to the core control of Putin's regime.

Levulis: So going back to a point you discussed earlier in the conversation, President Biden has called for a more stable, predictable relationship between the US and Russia. What ingredients in your mind do you think need to be involved for that to occur?

Steiner: First of all, there has to be realism. We have to understand and agree that there are areas where we're going to fundamentally disagree. And we've hit a bunch of those, we've hit cyber, we've hit Ukraine, we've hit human rights and democracy. And then there's going to be areas where we can cooperate. But we need to be smart and we need to understand what's going on when we talk about cooperation. And in cooperation, I would throw things like climate change. Some areas of working toward a regime in cyberspace, that's a longer term process. You know, Biden himself has said, we should be able to cooperate and work together on humanitarian assistance in Syria. We should be able to cooperate in space, we have a space station. So we should be able to work together there. Iran is an area where if we don't work together, we're not going to be able to get the nuclear issue under control. And in fact, that may be a very difficult one, but Iran is one where we might be able to work around the edges. What about North Korea? Actually, the Russians played a somewhat positive role when we had the sanctions on Korea. How is Joe Biden going to roll back North Korea, after Trump kind of let them do whatever they wanted to do in that area? So there are some areas out there, how about the origins of COVID? That's something that the Russians should be interested in. But on the other hand, the Russians are getting closer and closer to China as another authoritarian regime. So they may not want to push too hard on it. It's kind of hard to decide which way that one's going to go. But you can see there's a list of issues where they could work. Now, the key is not to play the Russian approach to these. Let me give you an example. If we were to try to cooperate in the area of cybersecurity. As soon as the experts got into a room, the Russians are going to look at you and say, ‘What do you know about what we do? And how do you know it?’ So that they can build up their defenses. So you don't want to fall into that trap. Biden went ahead and kind of called Putin out on Putin's suggestion that he could extradite people to the US for conducting ransomware attacks. Well, we've talked about these mutual extradition treaties before and all of a sudden, it becomes very political. These people did something that's against Russian law. We want them back here. But the US knows what's going to happen to them. So you've got to be very careful and you've got to be very realistic. And that's one of the keys of this meeting, is that we put the difficult issues on the table. We put the potential work-together, but we don't put the rosy glasses on. We see it for what it is and we understand what Putin wants out of this. And we leverage that to get what we want out of it.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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