President Joe Biden met with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, the new US president’s first in-person meeting with the Russian president since taking office. The lead-up was outright chaotic.
Following a botched FSB attempt to assassinate Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Putin had Navalny jailed, and recently refused to guarantee his survival in prison, saying he will be treated like other inmates. Authorities brutally suppressed demonstrations in support of Navalny and against regime corruption, in tandem ordering tech companies to remove protest-related content. The Kremlin then cracked down further on internet media through notorious “foreign agent” powers; around the same time, it slowed down access to Twitter and briefly threatened to block the platform entirely. In April the White House sanctioned numerous Russian entities for election interference operations in 2020, and more questions were circulating about how the administration would address recent cyberattacks against a major oil pipeline and several meat plants from groups within Russia.
Biden said after the meeting that Putin—whom he accurately called a “killer” back in March—“knows there are consequences” for any future cyberattacks or election interference against the US. “He knows I will take action,” Biden told reporters. The diplomatic summit was highly important, and it was critical for Biden to clearly articulate that the US will respond to certain aggressive behaviors from Moscow. Yet for all the talk in Washington of deterring election interference, the Putin regime has felt alarmingly little cost to date, and it maintains strong incentives to interfere again. There is a long road ahead to try to change Russian behavior.
It’s worth noting that this summit enormously improves upon the Trump administration’s, er, let’s call it “interaction” with Russia (“engagement” would imply more White House–level diplomacy than reality would suggest). Trump repeatedly praised Putin, absurdly compared the United States to Russia vis-à-vis Putin’s domestic assassinations, and threatened to withhold military aid from Ukraine if they didn’t launch an investigation into Biden. He also repeatedly lied about the Putin regime’s documented interference in American elections—outright contradicting numerous intelligence community and outside expert findings that proved the polar opposite. Trump then, of course, worked with enablers and other Republican officials to try to undermine the integrity of the 2020 election by suppressing votes, spreading disinformation, and inciting a violent coup at the Capitol. This has also proved to be useful propaganda material for Putin ahead of the summit with Biden.
Hence, the Biden White House’s diplomacy with Russia is a significant improvement upon the foreign policy disasters of the last administration, starting with the simple fact that it’s engaging in actual diplomacy and not blatantly damaging behavior. Its appointment and empowerment of experienced diplomats and subject-matter experts is too. As some analysts have observed, not publicly airing every dialog with Putin may at least enable the pursuit of US objectives—including on cybersecurity—without running as head-on into Putin’s obsession with image.
Much of what happened in private on Wednesday will likely remain classified. Putin said after the meeting concluded, “As for cybersecurity, we reached an agreement chiefly that we still start negotiations on that. I think that’s extremely important.” (He did not elaborate further.) Biden said the leaders discussed cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and keeping some types off-limits, adding he also brought up 16 types of infrastructure as part of that conversation. Reuters quoted a “senior administration official” saying this proposal focused on “destructive” hacks rather than traditional espionage.
Whatever red lines may have been raised, the fact remains that interference in previous US elections has been incredibly low-cost for the Russian government. The state-backed Internet Research Agency, to give one figure, spent a mere $46,000 on pre-2016 Election Day Facebook ads that reached 126 million Americans. Its overall budget around September 2016, per US Justice Department documents, was over $1.25 million per month—not much for a billionaire oligarch and Putin hand trying to sow chaos in US elections, especially compared to the hundreds of millions spent by the candidates. Such tactics follow a long history of Russian security agencies and various front organizations using “active measures” to engage in covert, below-threshold-of-armed-conflict activities to stoke division and promote leaders’ objectives. The internet has made today’s version even cheaper to execute.
Washington has done relatively little in response. Many American diplomats, law enforcement officials, and intelligence officers publicly raised the issue of election interference under the Trump administration, though most often, Trump would contradict and attack them. The US has implemented many sanctions on the Russian government—including recent additions from the Biden administration—which many argue at least communicate to the Kremlin that election interference will get a US response. But signaling displeasure is not the same as making that activity substantially more costly or harder to execute.
US tech platforms haven’t fundamentally changed their business models and website structures to prevent (cheaply built) Russian “troll factories” from spreading misinformation. While these companies point to money spent on combating influence operations, they are still, in many ways, fighting their very own systems designed for maximal engagement and microtargeting. Recall, for example, how Russian operatives essentially used Facebook’s ad function as-is in 2016 and 2018. And these actors are constantly moving targets, adapting their techniques to still run operations on the same platforms.
On the flip side, the gains have been great for Moscow: information campaigns deployed without serious resistance, extensive US media coverage about Russian election interference, and narrative fuel for Putin’s strongman image. Not to mention that the Kremlin already sees itself in an information conflict with the West. Certainly, there is propagandistic value in these kinds of comments—for instance, suggesting US social media platforms are tools of subversion—but they also reflect a genuine Kremlin belief about the United States and the global, open internet. Kremlin cost-benefit decisions rest within this context.
Some things have improved; American journalists might be less prone to covering selectively hacked and leaked materials à la the Democratic National Committee in 2016, now more privy to the ways they’re used to manufacture scandal. Biden has also vocally committed to cybersecurity dialogs with Russian counterparts, an important part of contemporary diplomacy that was degraded by the Trump administration.
Going forward, narrowly scoping the attacks or infrastructure deemed “off-limits” will be a key part of these lower-level cybersecurity dialogs. Biden’s trip itself, and related public statements against election interference, also underscore the White House’s prioritization of diplomacy to US allies and partners—another benefit of the summit. Though if Putin’s election interference calculus really is to change going forward, the same old US responses are hardly enough.
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