Jun 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's two-step negotiating process

President Biden departs Geneva. Photo: Martial Trezzini/Pool/AFP via Getty

President Biden's summit "reset" was less about trying to make a friend out of Russia than reframing what the U.S. believes can be accomplished by engaging with President Vladimir Putin.

Driving the news: The Geneva meeting yielded no immediate breakthroughs beyond agreements about ambassadors returning to work and plans to launch talks on nuclear security. But in classic Biden fashion — aviators on, jacket off and a one-liner about invading Russia he had to clarify was a joke — the U.S. president used a post-summit news conference to explain his approach.

Details: "My agenda is not against Russia" but for the U.S., Biden said Wednesday. There were "no threats," no hyperbole, just "simple assertions." The relationship is "not about trust" but self-interest and verification.

  • "I did what I came to do," Biden said, using words like "practical," "mutual interest" and "benefit the world," while saying he wanted Putin to hear directly from him what the U.S. considers unacceptable.
  • He said he addressed election interference, cyberattacks, Ukraine, trade and the fate of imprisoned Americans.

There were warnings, too. If jailed opposition leader Alexi Navalny dies, Biden said, the consequences would be "devastating for Russia."

  • The president also said he'd warned Putin that 16 specific elements of critical U.S. infrastructure were off-limits to cyber hacks and said he'd asked the Russian leader to consider, "How would you feel if ransomware took down the pipelines from your oil fields?"
  • Biden said Putin "still is concerned that we, in fact, are looking to take him down," but "the last thing he wants now is a cold war."

Between the lines: The president’s approach with Putin followed his approach to Congress: try to take the most optimistic path, give it some time and be prepared to march ahead with consequences.

  • He’ll call Republican and any outlier Democrats’ bluff on infrastructure and other legislation, and try to muscle ahead with his preferred bill if not.

It sounds the same with Putin. He said he wanted to work together and would set up some meeting structure to promote cooperation, then assess the results in several months.

  • There also was a very pregnant line in which he made clear: “We have significant cyber capabilities, he knows it.”
  • Biden is playing a slightly longer game, which is why he had chafed at some of the more momentary analyses of his meeting’s results.
  • In essence, the president is setting himself up for a great second act at home and abroad.

What to watch: Biden predicted it could be six months to a year before it's clear how much progress in the Russia relationship is possible.

  • Asked why the meeting was shorter than expected, Biden said he and Putin had covered so much ground in the first session that, "After two hours there, we looked at each other like, 'OK, what's next?'"
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