IMMEDIATE RELEASE 10 June 2021
Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON — President Biden views Russian President Putin as an autocrat devoid of a soul. He said so to his face 10 years ago and the Russian leader smiled, “We understand each other.”
But do they? Except for that one remark, we know little of what Putin thinks of Biden. They’ve known each other as long as Putin has effectively been in power, which is more than 20 years. Biden criticized the Russian leader from every platform, initially as a senator and a leading voice on foreign policy, then as vice president for eight years when a clumsy “reset” with Russia failed, and now finally as president.
The two men will meet face to face in Geneva, a summit Biden initiated in the hope of finding a “stable” relationship with his longtime nemesis.
They will meet after Biden’s numerous encounters with America’s allies demonstrate a unified front among Western democracies, although the January 6 insurrection shook their confidence in the strength of the U.S. democracy. Biden’s overriding task has been to reassure both allies and antagonists in his words, “America is back.”
Strength is the key word, and perhaps the only word Putin understands. At 68, he is a decade younger than Biden and positioned to be president for life. So, Biden cannot give any reason for Putin to under-estimate him.
That is what happened in 1961 when President Kennedy met Nikita Krushchev in Vienna. Krushchev assumed Kennedy was weak because he had launched then failed to support the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. That false impression led to the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, which spawned the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy successfully blockaded that island nation, forcing the missiles out, which, in turn, led to Krushchev’s ouster.
For Putin, the question is whether or not Biden is another Kennedy.
Asked what he wants from Putin, Biden said he is seeking a “stable predictable relationship,” but that the United States will respond in a “robust and meaningful way” to Russian aggression. Historically, it is a given for Russian leaders to seek territorial expansion, but the collapse of the Soviet empire crushed the spirit of its leaders. This led to Putin’s rise and his moves to reestablish the lost empire.
At the heart of the coming summit will be Ukraine and its aspirations to join NATO, which would add another bulwark of the Western defense alliance flush against the Russian border. The idea of Ukraine gaining NATO membership was first introduced during the Clinton administration, and it has since served mostly as a bargaining chip between the East and the West.
Putin will vigorously protest NATO expansion while Biden will vigorously oppose Russian aggression into Ukraine without explicitly committing to that country’s defense. Putin’s blatant seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 went unchallenged during the Obama administration, a fact that seemed to encourage further aggression against Ukraine. But Biden is said to object more viscerally to Russian aggression than many of his compatriots because as a senator and as vice president he traveled to places threatened by Russia, and he identifies with their fears and concerns. On the other hand, Biden’s order to pull out of Afghanistan can only be viewed by Putin as a sign of weakness.
Biden’s first foreign trip as president comes when there are new problems as well as the traditional differences with Russia. The new ones are in cyberspace. FBI Director Wray recently testified he regards the proliferation of ransomware attacks coming out of Russia and Chia as a national security problem. Nothing happens in Moscow that Putin doesn’t know about, and he could, if he chooses, disarm these criminal rings. So, as Putin reassesses Biden, he will be assessing him in a new context regarding a new problem Putin can address.
This will be a momentous summit filled with mixed messages leading to misjudgments or one with clear messages clarifying that the superpower of the past is no match for the sole superpower of the present. Afterall, what can Putin do if Ukraine joins NATO? Follow Krushchev’s example into obscurity?
Douglas Cohn’s latest books are World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers) and The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency.
© 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND
IMMEDIATE RELEASE 10 June 2021