The last time an American president held a summit with President Vladimir Putin of Russia — July 16, 2018, in Helsinki — happened to be my first day working at the White House as National Security Council director for European and Russian affairs. It was not the usual mundane Day 1 of H.R. meetings, to put it mildly. Instead, I was thrust into a vortex of unending press inquiries and hasty meetings with other National Security Council staff members. We were all responding to frantic calls from embassies and congressional aides demanding comments and clarification on President Donald Trump’s bizarre assertion that he seemed to believe Mr. Putin’s (false) denials of interference in the 2016 election at least as much as the assessment of the United States intelligence community.
The decidedly sedate spectacle of Wednesday’s summit between President Biden and Mr. Putin in Geneva could not be a starker contrast to the frenzied mayhem of three years ago. Russia watchers expected the standard fare of arms control discussions and renewed “strategic stability” talks, including discussions on reducing the threat of unintended conflicts. What I found most reassuring were Mr. Biden’s statements that he would stand firm on defending democratic values, be critical of human rights violations, protect the free press, and seek justice for American citizens wrongfully detained by the Russian government. A welcome surprise and a major departure from Mr. Trump’s Russia policy was the signaling of a muscular response to any further attacks on the United States, including retaliating against future cyberattacks.
Critics will argue that little was accomplished Wednesday that would move the needle on U.S.-Russia relations. That may be so, if progress is measured by a single meeting. In reality, diplomacy doesn’t work that way.
In the short term, we will quickly see respective ambassadors return to their posts, and strategic stability talks and cyber working groups resume meetings. Yet real, long-term progress will be measured in terms of how intentionally the United States responds to Russian aggression.
If, for instance, America continues to be the victim of cyberattacks, then there must be real consequences to deter Russia’s actions. Ultimately, it is the United States’ response to continued Russian aggression that will steer the relationship back to one of establishing deterrence. Mr. Biden’s statement about the relationship being based on “self-interest and verification” and “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” show he is aware of these complexities.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Biden started to set the conditions to constrain Russia’s behavior. In the frank exchanges — as evidenced by the statements issued during the news conferences — it seems clear that Mr. Biden delivered strong warnings. But American officials know very well that constraining Russia’s belligerence will take far more than tough talk or unilateral U.S. actions. It will take unwavering toughness from Mr. Biden and a solid front among allies — all united and cleareyed in the belief that Mr. Putin is fundamentally an adversary who needs to be kept in check.
Mr. Biden’s statements will no doubt play well in the U.S. media for a short time, but the visual of Mr. Putin shaking hands with Mr. Biden will probably be replayed ad nauseam on Russia’s state media for weeks and months, particularly in advance of September parliamentary elections.
The clear problem here is that Russia is coming away with a public relations win while the U.S. has little to show from the summit in terms of tangible improvements to national security. Mr. Putin has once again been elevated to the world stage in a face-off against the world’s pre-eminent superpower in a well-rehearsed and tiresome script that burnishes his credentials as a world leader.
The Biden administration’s short-term objective of using the summit to de-escalate some tensions, like the buildup along the Russia-Ukraine border, ending the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, and forestalling the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny made a summit a good tactical play. But this one-off summit has done little to advance the long-term strategic objectives of containing Russia’s growing aggression and interference in the domestic affairs of Western democracies.
The overriding U.S. foreign policy aim must be to prevent an existential confrontation with Russia, given its growing belligerence, propensity to employ conventional military capability, and consistent pattern of apparently miscalculating the effects of attacks on neighbors and adversaries. U.S. policy must focus on reducing the short-term risks of miscalculations, while simultaneously addressing the ever-increasing long-term risk of a confrontation with Russia continuously testing U.S. resolve.
What is necessary is an approach that establishes prohibitively high costs and denies the benefits of Russia’s belligerence. This includes symmetric and asymmetric responses to Russian cyberattacks, significantly increased security assistance to Ukraine if Russia continues to escalate its war there and active engagement with Russian civil-society and pro-democracy groups as Moscow continues its information war in the United States and the West.
To offset the risks of this approach, the United States will need to remain engaged with Russia in order to provide clarity on the severe ramifications of further transgressions. This must be accompanied by the swift execution of those promised consequences. There can’t be rowed-back red lines. (Frankly, Russia has already crossed several of them through their blatant interference in our democratic process and cyberattacks.) And that approach must also be executed in coordination with allies and partners, because Russia will undoubtedly exploit the fissures within existing alliances to undermine any multilateral strategy.
The Biden administration may have hoped that, by holding the summit, it would check off the undesirable obligation of engaging with Russia and then move on to the more pressing business of an overflowing domestic agenda and the challenges of a rising China. But as we well know, no one puts Vladimir Putin in a corner; he will continue to demand presidential-level engagements with Mr. Biden, especially as his credibility is reliant on asserting Russian power.
The Biden administration’s approach has to be a combination of sustained engagement, including strategic stability talks with senior national security leaders from both countries, along with calibrated steady pressure to end Russian aggression. Getting that right, without tipping into a full-blown confrontation, is the Biden administration’s Gordian knot.
Mr. Vindman is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a Pritzker Military Fellow at the Lawfare Institute and the author of the forthcoming memoir “Here, Right Matters.”
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