It was so normal; an American president met with a Russian autocrat and talked about human rights, arms control and cyber attacks. So different from just a couple of years ago when a former U.S. president cozied up to the same autocrat and chose the autocrat’s version of the truth over the facts presented by American intelligence services.
The summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva this week was a success, at least in comparison to the bro’ love fests in which Donald Trump engaged with the Russian. There was not much love shown in Geneva, but there was substantial respect expressed by Putin for Biden’s experience and command of issues.
Now, of course, “the proof will be in the pudding,” as Biden said, using one of his signature colloquialisms. He pressed Putin to put an end to the ransomware attacks and election meddling emanating from Russian soil and promised retaliation if those aggressions do not end. But Putin is as much a pirate as he is a pragmatist and he may not be inclined to behave.
Russia is an economic lightweight heavily dependent on revenue from oil; a major power only because of its nuclear arsenal. Putin, nevertheless, has remained a big player on the world stage precisely because of the covert shenanigans he has engaged in to subvert elections, distort political debate on social media and even endanger power grids in democratic countries. He has also been willing to violate 21st century norms by invading other countries like a 19th century imperialist while crushing political opposition at home like the brutal fascist that he is.
Biden is asking him to change all of that. It is hard to imagine Putin doing much more than cosmetic shifts in his approach, however, so we may soon see if Biden is ready to strike back in a way Trump never would.
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