Biden looks to foreign allies for a Russia policy with teeth

Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to U.S. President Joe Biden as he attends a virtual global climate summit via a video link in Moscow, April 22, 2021.
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President Joe Biden will be attending a string of international summits this month, and at all of them he will have one overriding priority: to agree with U.S. allies on a new Russia strategy, one that encompasses diplomatic engagement and real accountability for President Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations and aggression abroad.

It won’t be easy. A succession of U.S. administrations has tried and failed, and Mr. Putin is only growing more authoritarian and combative. Mr. Biden is ready to be frank with the Russian president when they meet in Geneva June 16, but his problem is how to give his message teeth.

Why We Wrote This

At two meetings with U.S. allies this month, President Biden will try to thrash out a common policy on Russia, before his summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It won’t be easy.

For that, he will likely need help from his allies, who he will be meeting in two forums – NATO and the G-7, the group of economically advanced nations – before his summit with Mr. Putin.

So far, international economic and diplomatic sanctions have not deterred the Kremlin from invading neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, nor from locking up opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny.

President Biden may be wondering whether the time has not come to start freezing or confiscating the overseas assets of Mr. Putin himself and those of his family and friends. And that will take close cooperation with Washington’s friends.

For President Joe Biden, it’s suddenly summit season. Three in the next two weeks, with one overriding aim: a new Russia strategy encompassing both diplomatic engagement and real accountability for President Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations at home and aggression abroad.

Sounds difficult? It is. Successive U.S. administrations have failed to achieve it – ever since George W. Bush emerged from a 2001 summit saying he’d got a sense of Mr. Putin’s “soul” and predicting “very constructive” ties with Moscow.

Since then, Mr. Putin has become more authoritarian and internationally combative. That only makes President Biden’s challenge even more daunting.

Why We Wrote This

At two meetings with U.S. allies this month, President Biden will try to thrash out a common policy on Russia, before his summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It won’t be easy.

That’s especially true when it comes to making Mr. Putin pay a price for his actions. Economic and diplomatic sanctions – the traditional U.S. fallback option – seem to have had little impact on Mr. Putin’s policies. New tools, coordinated and consistently applied with allies, could well be needed.

President Biden will make his move toward diplomatic engagement at a June 16 summit with Mr. Putin in the Swiss city of Geneva. He’s already facing criticism from Republican Party politicians, and some Russian opposition figures, for agreeing to the meeting.

Why “reward” the Russian leader, he’s being asked, who has jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, after trying to poison him? Or when Russia, having annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine, has gathered thousands of troops on its border? Or when the Kremlin has backed its ally, Belarus, in last month’s hijacking of a civilian jet to arrest opposition figures?

And why meet amid escalating Russian cyberattacks on America and its European allies?

The Biden administration sees the summit differently, not as a reward but a step toward restoring “predictability and stability” to the U.S. relationship with Moscow, in the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki. That, Mr. Biden feels, means cooperating, if possible, on matters of mutual interest: arms control, climate change, the pandemic, even perhaps trouble spots like the Middle East. With his main foreign-policy emphasis on China, he’d like to avoid a wholly adversarial relationship with the Kremlin.

Still, U.S. officials say that when he sits down with his Russian counterpart he will not engage in happy talk. It will be straight talk: frankly critical of Russia’s human rights record, its cyber-aggression, and on Ukraine and Belarus.

Yet the main difficulty he will face is not what to say to Mr. Putin. It will be how to give his message teeth. And that will mean finding tools to curb Russian actions more effectively than in the past – and, critically, getting support for this from U.S. allies.

That’s where the other two summits, in the run-up to Geneva, come in.

The first convenes next week, hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on England’s southwest coast, bringing together leaders of the G-7 group of economically advanced countries.

Then Mr. Biden will travel to Belgium for a June 14 summit of the transatlantic defense alliance, NATO.

NATO is key to his strategy. With its recent deployments on its eastern flank and a major military preparedness exercise this month, the alliance is signaling its readiness to fend off any Russian threat to its European members, including the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, or to onetime Soviet satellites such as Poland and Hungary.

Though the NATO summit will address a range of security matters, the agenda highlights two issues sure to figure in the Biden-Putin talks a few days later: “Russia’s aggressive actions” and “cyberattacks.”

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian sailors salute as they stand guard at the Northern Fleet's flagship, the Pyotr Veilikiy (Peter the Great) missile cruiser, at its Arctic base of Severomorsk, Russia, on May 13, 2021. Adm. Alexander Moiseyev, commander of Russia's Northern Fleet, described the increased military activities by NATO near the country's borders as a threat to regional security.

Yet ironically, it could be the G-7 meeting that proves most important.

G-7 meetings traditionally deal with broader world economic and social questions. Officially, Russia is not on the agenda 

But Mr. Biden needs European help to hold Mr. Putin to account, and he’ll be sharing the G-7 conference table with key players including the leaders of Germany, France, and the European Union.

They agree on the issues of concern, and they’ve coordinated sanctions against Russian officials and institutions in recent years.

But the Europeans also have economic ties with Russia that they are reluctant to risk, most controversially the undersea Nord Stream-2 pipeline that will carry Russian natural gas to Germany, a project strongly opposed across party lines in the United States. In what seemed a goodwill gesture to help win European buy-in on his broader strategy toward Moscow, Mr. Biden last month lifted sanctions on companies helping to build the pipeline.

Now, he’ll be meeting the allies at a time when some Russia-policy experts, as well as Mr. Navalny and his senior aides, have urged more closely targeted sanctions that would freeze or confiscate the overseas assets of Mr. Putin, his family, and the oligarchs in his political orbit.

Much of those oligarchs’ wealth has been funneled through London’s financial markets or laundered in major real estate holdings. While the U.K. government has taken some countermeasures in recent years, a true U.S.-European effort to exert more effective influence on Russian policy would require stronger action.

For signs of whether that’s likely to happen, the upcoming G-7 summit could be a good place to start.

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