Meeting Putin: Biden's Historic Challenge | Opinion

When Joe Biden confronts the strongman of Russia on June 16th, the global balance of power will be at stake, for the remainder of his presidency and beyond. The responsibility on Biden's shoulders will be tremendous. The forecast? Grim.

Vladimir Putin has a gloomy view of America and makes no secret of it. Every American president since George W. Bush has looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, and each has seen the U.S.-Russian relationship deteriorate further. At the end of Bush's second term, Russia moved to grab Georgia. The U.S. was forced to send the Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, stopping the Russian tanks from rolling into Tbilisi.

In 2014, during Barack Obama's presidency, Putin turned toward Ukraine and grabbed the Crimea, my birthplace. In 2015, it was Syria's turn. The year after, intervention in the U.S. election shocked the American establishment, irrevocably souring relations. Recent cyberattacks targeting U.S. government databases, gasoline pipelines and meat distribution facilities demonstrated that Russian "hackers" are poking and prodding our domestic resilience.

Putin has spent tens of billions of dollars on new military bases in the Arctic, aimed at facilitating a nuclear strike against America. He splurges on hypersonic missiles, underwater hydrogen bomb-armed torpedoes and nuclear-powered missiles. We are back to brinksmanship of the Cold War.

Biden must remember the full context of Putin's aggression. In its shame over the loss in the Cold War and disdain for American victory, Russia allowed itself to become second fiddle in the Moscow-Beijing authoritarian axis, while arming and coddling Iran and supporting corrupt socialist dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The democratic achievements made under Boris Yeltsin are in the ash heap of Russian history. The ruling party has declared dissidents "foreign agents," jailed people for social media posts and assassinated political opponents such as Boris Nemtsov. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza and writer Dmitry Bykov have all survived poisoning attempts. Fueling this anti-democratic crackdown is a "Fortress Russia" mindset, wherein the population is trained to circle the wagons around their leader.

Russia's vitriol is escalating global chaos. While bringing cyber hostilities to American soil and projecting power, Putin is building Russia's military presence in the Arctic, the Baltics (Kaliningrad) and the Black Sea (the Crimea). By basing TU-22M Backfire bombers in Syria, threatening U.S. Navy and NATO forces in the Mediterranean and pushing Belarus for further integration, Russia has effectively pushed its military borders more than 1,000 km west.

Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with journalist of NBC News Keir Simmons in Moscow on June 11, 2021, during an exclusive interview ahead of a meeting with US President. Maxim Blinov / SPUTNIK / AFP/Getty Images

Russia's reach is expanding into the Mediterranean and Africa. Moscow-Tehran cooperation in Syria also makes Russia a formidable player in the Middle East, and a potential ally of the growing Chinese power.

However, Russia is not invulnerable. It has economic and reputational weaknesses that President Biden should remember. Instead of making concessions—such as lifting sanctions on Nord Stream 2, as Biden did before the summit—the president should focus on what really matters: the coming confrontation with China. Our EU allies have made it clear that they will not meaningfully back us in that conflict. Biden should tell them that China is a paramount strategic priority for the United States, and they need to up their game.

A straightforward discussion with Putin about the potential Chinese threat to Russia is long overdue. Much may follow from such a discussion, including reduced heat in the U.S.-Russia confrontation.

Biden should make it clear that the continuation of cyberattacks will result in appropriate counter measures, and warn of the consequences of a Russian attack on Ukraine. A coordinated response with the Europeans will be necessary in such a case.

It is also time to speak to the Russian people over the heads of their leaders. We did so for decades with Congress-funded international broadcasting: Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Today, their audience penetration in Russia is a shadow of what it was during the Cold War. Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money are wasted. It is a high time for Congress to completely reinvent the media outlets under new leadership.

Another channel of communication is the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government-supported nonprofit which makes small grants to democracy activists in dictatorships. It recently inaugurated a new president, the exceptionally capable Damon Wilson, my colleague at the Atlantic Council. Damon is likely to revamp the endowment at the time of historic confrontation with America's autocratic adversaries.

Whatever the immediate outcome of this week's meeting, Biden's relationship with Putin—and Xi—will define America's security for years to come. The real tests of Joe Biden and the U.S. are coming.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Energy, Growth and Security Program at International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.