June 17, 2021

Diane Francis


President Joe Biden was cranky by the time his whirlwind Euro tour ended in Geneva Switzerland. He ended his appearance by uncharacteristically snapping at a reporter who repeated a question as he left his press conference following his summit with Vladimir Putin. His flash of anger was in sharp contrast to Putin’s press conference which finished with a softball question from a Canadian journalist who asked him to describe for her nine-year-old daughter what the summit was all about. Putin probably couldn’t believe his good fortune and launched into a soliloquy that the two leaders were simply trying to protect little kids and others from being hurt by ghastly weapons and to bring about peace to the world.

The truth is the summit in Geneva was a meeting that mostly resulted in setting up more meetings. A few modest goals were sought. Biden was there to say tough things to Putin about all his predations, try to establish red lines for future behavior, tell the world about what he said, and, given Putin’s proclivities to poison foes, skip lunch.

Putin’s goal was to simply show up, publicly counter-accuse America of human rights abuses and murder, then go back to his dacha and dogs in order to plot strategic workarounds, invent new hybrid-warfare weapons, crush his domestic opponents, and continue to scare Eastern European, Baltic, and the Black Sea nations to death.

“The only good news about the meeting, the summit, was that it was shorter than expected, so there was not much damage done,” said chess champion and Russian democracy activist Gary Kasparov. “It’s not about words, it’s about actions and you don’t meet in Geneva with thieves who robbed your house. Biden undermined America’s European allies and gave Putin a top seat at the table.”

“In the last 20 years, Putin has violated every agreement he ever made, grabbed territories from neighboring countries, or helped his cronies abroad,” he added. “To send a message to Putin, Biden should have first met with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky in Ukraine, or confiscated the money he and his cronies have invested in the free world.”

Putin refused to take any Russian responsibility for recent cyberattacks against America and rebuffed allegations of human rights abuses by suggesting that the Americans were guilty of abuses in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and at home. At least the two agreed to reinstate their respective ambassadors and to form diplomatic working teams to discuss certain issues such as allowing humanitarian aid into Syria and the release of a handful of imprisoned Americans. “In three to six months we’ll see if the summit is successful,” said Biden.

President Biden also drew three lines in the sand: That Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected (or what’s remaining of it since Russia occupies 12.5 percent of the country already); that critical infrastructure should not be attacked by cyber or other means; and

that democracy activist Alexey Navalny must not die in prison. “I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia,” Biden threatened.

Biden’s team handed the Putin team a list of 16 infrastructure sectors that must be considered “off-limits”, from energy to water systems. The Americans want those who conduct ransomware activities to be tracked down and brought to justice, impossible given that Putin refuses to even admit that SolarWinds, Colonial Pipeline, and meat processing giant JBS attacks originated in Russia.

Naturally, this led to a question by the press as to how America can force an incorrigible Putin to comply, to which Biden responded: “I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior. What will change their behavior [Russia and China] is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything.”

When asked whether America warned Russia against new cyberattacks, Biden said: “We have significant cyber capability, he knows it, and if they violate these basic norms we will respond in a cyber way. I think the last thing he wants now is a Cold War. He has a multi-thousand-mile border with China. China is moving ahead seeking to be the biggest economy and military in the world. Your economy is struggling. You don’t want a Cold War with the United States.”

But Putin doesn’t worry about a two-front “war” or Russia’s “diminishing standing in the world”. He is the richest and most powerful person in the history of the world, who runs the largest country geographically on the planet with a nuclear arsenal. Putin can only be forced to color within the lines, not persuaded or frightened to do so. He is not a Southern hick holding up legislation in the U.S. Senate, who is worried about Trump or being “primaried” or rejected by voters or his wife being snubbed at church. This is a man who, for sport, picks up small nations and throws them against the wall.

Putin didn’t fuss about his country’s reputation when he flouted Biden’s request in April to de-escalate his mobilization around Ukraine. Within weeks, he proceeded to swallow up Belarus, to host two more major cyberattacks on large American companies providing essential services to millions, and to illegally take control over Ukrainian waters along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts. In fact, in the lead-up to the summit, he has made the Black Sea his new flashpoint of concern to NATO neighbors like Turkey and Romania. Russia’s fleet of warships and troops in Crimea are slowly choking shipping lanes into Ukrainian ports and Putin is now capable of bringing the country to its knees by imposing a shipping blockade and staging an amphibious invasion.

But the press in Geneva was more interested in luring Biden to commit another “killer” sound-byte than in asking any questions about the Black Sea crisis. The real question to Putin should have been ‘do you plan on invading Ukraine again?’ and to Biden ‘did you or NATO tell Putin to stand down?’

The only reference to the seven-year war between Russia and Ukraine was when Biden suggested that the Minsk negotiation process was the answer. Hopefully, Ukraine’s President Zelensky will disavow him of that notion in their upcoming meeting in Washington because the

Minsk process was flawed from the start. After the occupation, Russia rejected the United States and European Union as participants to negotiate peace, insisted on France and Germany, and co-opted both ever since with lucrative trade deals.

Strangely, Biden also suggested that China, along with Russia, may mend its ways due to concerns about “diminishing its standing” in the world. But the reality is that Putin is a geopolitical version of Tony Soprano, complete with his own mafia, and China’s leader resembles Gordon Gekko, a rapacious top dog who aspires to have an economy bigger than America’s. Their power is the only image they cherish.

China is a challenge but Russia is a threat. However, both have smart leaders who run full-blown dictatorships that must be dealt with more severely than is now the case by the world’s democracies. “In the last 20 years, Putin has complimented American Presidents and uses the opportunity to violate every agreement he ever made, grab territories of neighboring countries, and help his cronies abroad,” said Kasparov.

That’s why nothing will change in three to six months. Besides, Putin will be preoccupied this summer with subjugating and jailing thousands more Russians in the lead-up to his rigged election. He will also be busy finishing construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, bypassing Ukraine’s gas transit system, and meddling in Germany’s election to defeat the Greens who won’t activate the pipeline even if it’s completed. Once these tasks are accomplished, he will then be able to hold both Europe and Ukraine hostage, in terms of energy, and resume his hybrid warfare against the rest.

In Putin’s parallel universe, America and the West are enemies, are encircling him, and must be defeated. This summit was another ballyhooed event that boosted his image and television ratings, and unfortunately will fail to change minds or the course of history.