June 10, 2021
“If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”
— Sun Tzu in The Art of War
The June 16 summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin is like a sporting event on steroids: pre-game posturing, muscle flexing, girding for battle and goading. But the difference this time is that the trash-talking started in mid-March when Biden agreed with an interviewer that Putin was a “killer”, which he is, and Putin got mad. The very next day, an angry Putin invoked America’s murderous track record, and then wished Biden “good health”, which is Kremlin-speak for you’d-better-hire-a-food-taster. Then he started throwing punches weeks before the match.
Frankly, the very notion of a summit – initiated by Biden – was foolish in the first place. “I condemned the idea of a summit between a leader of the free world and the dictator of a terrorist mafia state,” wrote Garry Kasparov, Russian pro-democracy activist and chess champion. “We don’t know what the U.S. gets out of a summit. The U.S. needs nothing from Russia other than for Mr. Putin to cease his global campaigns of invasion, assassination, hacking, and election interference.”
Biden landed the first verbal punch but Putin has pummeled him ever since. What perplexes me is that he accurately called Putin a “killer” but isn’t behaving like someone who knows how to deal with, or dispose of, a killer. Russian aggressions immediately began piling up after the insult, but Biden hasn’t put up his dukes. Not once.
So in April Putin amassed 100,000 troops and missiles on Ukraine’s border. Biden asked him to de-escalate, then invited him to a summit. Only 10,000 troops were moved, but no additional missiles and Russian warships were dispatched to the Black Sea to further intimidate Ukraine. Putin continued to tighten the noose around Belarus to the north, propping up its dictator, and eventually obtained de facto control of the country by May. Also during the lead-up to the summit, the Russians (allegedly criminal gangs) launched two massive ransomware cyberattacks on high-profile American businesses, Putin supported the hijacking of a commercial airliner in late May to arrest a pro-democracy Belarusian blogger, and then he embarked on a brutal crackdown of pro-democracy leaders, lawyers, and media across Russia.
Killer Putin has turned America and its values into a punching bag and yet Biden capitulated — days before the plane hijack — by waiving sanctions imposed by Congress to prevent Putin from finishing a gas pipeline to Germany, that will allow him to hold Europe hostage. Billed as a favor to Germany, whose industrialists and current government want it built, there has been no indication as to what Germany will give in return for this. Germany has not promised to meet its NATO commitment to spend 2
percent of its GDP on defense. Germany continues to object to letting Ukraine and Georgia join NATO.
Appeasement doesn’t work with Russia. Putin marauds at will. Ukraine and Georgia twist in the wind, vulnerable to further invasions by Russia, and the West and democracies worldwide also remain vulnerable to Russia – by land, sea, air, and the Internet.
The question is why would Biden talk tough in March, then bob and weave and blink ever since? The failure by Putin to de-escalate when asked to do so should have been reason enough to send U.S. warships into the Black Sea and to fast-track Ukraine and Georgia’s membership into NATO. The two ransomware attacks mounted out of Russia were reason enough to demand reparations and redouble sanctions imposed this spring concerning the Solar Winds attacks against thousands of U.S. corporations last year.
Instead, Biden is like a boxer pinned on the ropes, unwilling or unable to punch back. His advisors, notably Antony Blinken, are too Euro-centric and wonkish to understand how to deal with a street thug. They don’t understand the motives and nature of the foe. They don’t understand that Putin does not want a stable and predictable relationship, as Biden stated he wishes to establish, but he wants the opposite. Putin never negotiates. He never concedes. He kills and conquers without hesitation. He’s not held back by alliances that hold conflicting viewpoints or have conflicts of interest. He never changes.
He has no interest in winning or reaching an agreement. Vladimir Putin’s goal is to restore the Soviet Union and to destroy the United States, the European Union, democracy, and capitalism, not necessarily in that order.
By pulling punches, Biden actually emboldens Putin and has given him the upper hand in the run-up to the summit. “He wanted to start negotiations with Biden from a strong position – put pressure on, gain ground, and then say ‘maybe I’ll give you concessions.’ But basically, he would just be giving back a part of what he gained unlawfully,” explained Yuriy Vitrenko, a Ukrainian official who’s been in negotiations with Putin.
There won’t be a win-win with Putin. He’s landed blows on Biden before the American President has even laid a glove on him. Tough talk isn’t enough. Tough actions are paramount. “The truth is that Russia only understands force. The US and the rest of the democratic world should show strength and unity. That is the only way to change Russia’s malign behavior,” added Vitrenko.
Biden appears to believe that he can beat Putin if the West and the alliance of democratic nations are in his corner. So he meets with the G7, EU, and NATO but they are already in America’s corner and we all know how that’s worked out thus far – twice in a century Europe succumbed to fascist thugs like Putin and had to be bailed out by the Americans. Today, Europe remains weak: France and Germany have been co-opted by Putin through trade deals; Britain is neutered as a result of its self-imposed suicidal Brexit; the rest are squabbling appeasers; and Poland, the Baltics, and Central and Eastern Europe’s tiny nations quake but cannot carry the day.
It’s doubtful that Biden’s eight days of Euro meet-and-greet before the summit will be productive, any more than have his meetings in the Oval Office with intransigent Republicans over frozen legislation of monumental national importance. At some point, at home and abroad, Joe Biden must enter the ring alone and charge into battle. It’s time to foreswear naïve beliefs in multilateralism as well as bipartisanship if they prevent rational action.
Biden can and should knock Putin onto the mat before the summit by announcing severe measures: the United States and allies should establish a mechanism of tough sanctions designed to increase or decrease based on future Russian behavior; it should demand billions in reparations for cyberattack damage; it should give NATO membership to Putin’s next takeover targets, Ukraine and Georgia; and the President must immediately halt construction of Putin’s pet project, an $11-billion natural gas pipeline to Germany, as Congress approved overwhelmingly.
What’s most disappointing is that Biden gave Putin his pipeline before the summit showdown, equivalent to Muhammed Ali giving Joe Fraser a backrub in the wings before the match begins. Joe Biden is a smart man and surely he must realize who he’s dealing with and that the Presidency is the most powerful position on the planet. He must also realize that perhaps he’s too optimistic, as illustrated in his statement that “autocrats will not win the future. We will.”
Victory may be possible, but only if he delivers knock-out punches to opponents, whether they are at home or abroad.