Putin hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt

The Russian president needs to go a long ways in earning our trust, including admitting to Russia-backed cyberattacks and assaults on the U.S. political system.



June 17, 2021 - 10:18 AM

Russia President Vladimir Putin, left, and President Joe Biden meet for talks in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)

President Biden’s first summit meeting with Vladimir Putin was preceded by reports of persistent cyberattacks by Russian state and private actors against sensitive U.S. targets and a major Russian military mobilization along the borders of Ukraine, among other provocations. Mr. Biden consequently vowed to reestablish “red lines” with the Kremlin ruler, who himself told an interviewer that relations were at their lowest point in years. So it was somewhat surprising that both leaders emerged from their talks in Geneva on Wednesday describing a positive exchange and the potential for a more stable and cooperative relationship.

“The talks were quite constructive,” said Mr. Putin, who went on to praise Mr. Biden as “very balanced” and “very experienced.” “The tone of the entire meeting was very good, positive,” agreed the U.S. president. “I think there is a genuine prospect for us to significantly improve relations between our countries.”

It would certainly be welcome if Mr. Biden’s discussion with the Russian ruler, and follow-up talks they agreed would take place, led to an end to Russia-based cyberattacks, the relaxation of the Kremlin’s squeeze on the Russian operations of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the release of U.S. citizens unjustly imprisoned in Moscow. Mr. Putin hinted “compromise” was possible on all these matters. Mr. Biden further reported that Mr. Putin had offered “help” on Iran and Afghanistan, and that accommodations were possible on the wars in Syria and Libya, where the two countries back opposing sides.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the virtual World Economic Forum via a video link from Moscow on Jan. 27, 2021. (Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

IN SHORT, the rhetoric sounded a lot like that which followed the initial encounters between the past three U.S. presidents and Mr. Putin, who has invariably reneged on his promises and relentlessly escalated his assaults on the U.S. political system and alliances. The Russian ruler’s implacable hostility toward the United States was evident in his performance at a post-summit news conference, in which he repeatedly offered bogus comparisons between his foreign aggressions, his human rights offenses, and U.S. actions. His persecution of the peaceful opposition movement led by Alexei Navalny, he claimed, was comparable to the prosecution of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

U.S. President Joe Biden gives a press conference after the NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Hoslet/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Mr. Biden called that comparison “ridiculous,” but otherwise appeared willing to offer Mr. Putin the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Putin surely understood, the president asserted, that the death of Mr. Navalny would be “devastating for Russia,” because of the harm that would be done to the regime’s global standing; the Kremlin knew that the United States possessed significant cyber capabilities and would use them if Russia’s cyberattacks continued. “I think the last thing he wants now is a Cold War,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Putin. Perhaps. But why, then, is his regime engaged in such mischief-making as seeking to discredit U.S. vaccines? Who is responsible for the mysterious injuries suffered by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials in Moscow, Havana and even Washington?

Mr. Biden properly devoted much of his European tour to reaffirming U.S. ties to its major democratic allies after four years of disruption by President Donald Trump. Mr. Biden underlined his aspiration to lead them in a contest for global influence with resurgent autocracies, led by China and Russia. He was right to meet Mr. Putin and seek to reestablish U.S. red lines. As for the prospect of “significantly improved relations,” Mr. Biden said, “we’ll find out.”

Indeed we will, but there’s no reason to believe the outcome will vary from previous U.S. attempts at cooperation with Mr. Putin.