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Biden drew the line on Putin. Now it’s the Russian’s move.


WASHINGTON — Now it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move.

President Joe Biden walked out of his summit with Putin on Wednesday with few of the “deliverables” — concrete outcomes — that diplomatic negotiators obsess over. The two leaders mostly agreed to set up a process for lower-level aides to keep talking about key issues.

But Biden did deliver a succinct message to his Russian counterpart: Stop messing with the U.S. and international norms. “The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules,” Biden said at a news conference in Geneva. “This is the road that we can all abide by.”

Nearly three years after then-President Donald Trump sidled up to Putin physically and metaphorically following their summit in Helsinki, Biden’s first foreign trip as president emphasized a hard break from Trump’s criticism of U.S. allies and courtship of the Russian leader.

Biden turned the page from the Trump years.

It’s up to Putin to decide whether to crack down on cyberattacks against the U.S., dial back his aggression toward Ukraine and stop targeting his domestic political opponents.

Even Biden says he’s not sure the often-recalcitrant Putin will do any of that — “I’m not confident he’ll change the behavior,” Biden said — but Democrats and some Republicans in Congress say it was important to be direct with Putin about the expectations of a new administration and America’s international partners.

“The value of the trip is re-aligning America with our actual allies,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former State Department official and human rights activist, said of Biden’s meeting with European leaders before he sat down with Putin. “The value of the summit is that it was an opportunity to deliver to Putin, in clear and certain terms, what America’s red lines are now that we have a normal president who’s playing for our team.”

In particular, American officials have been concerned about Russian hackers’ disabling computer systems in the U.S. and demanding ransom to restore access to them. The administration and Congress are grappling with how to retaliate against Russia for, at the very least, permitting hackers to operate with impunity.

“It’s really important for the Russians to understand they will face consequences” for cyberattacks, said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who is a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former State Department official. “I hope that President Biden was firm about that.”

Biden told reporters that he didn’t threaten Putin directly but instead outlined 16 areas of “critical infrastructure” that he views as “off limits” to cyber or physical attack. In effect, Biden was drawing a line around them and warning Putin that he would be accountable if Russians — the government or independent entities — abrogated that line.

“I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability, and he knows it,” Biden said. “He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant. And if, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond … in a cyber way.”

Biden wasn’t asked whether that means he has just created a rule allowing Russian hackers to attack other targets without fear of U.S. reprisal.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he asked the White House before the trip to work with U.S. allies to come up with a mechanism for international sanctions if Putin declines to stop cyberattacks from within Russia.

“These entities operate with the blessing of the Russian government, or they wouldn’t exist,” Schiff said.

At times, Biden emphasized the value of personal relationships in foreign policy, particularly as they relate to Putin’s desire to build his credibility with other world leaders.

“All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships,” he said. “It’s the way human nature functions. And understand, when you run a country that does not abide by international norms — and yet you need those international norms to be somehow managed so that you can participate in the benefits that flow from them — it hurts you.”

Conversely, he said his own approach to Putin has little do to with the personal.

“This is not about trust,” he said. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.” And he added: “As that old expression goes, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ We’re going to know shortly.”

It could be that Biden can someday claim credit for altering incentives enough to force changes in Putin’s behavior. But it could be that he accomplished little on his trip.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a brief interview that she was “so proud” of Biden. “He represented our country, our values and our strength in that meeting.”

But Cheney worried that the administration’s policies, particularly less robust defense spending than she would like, could embolden Putin rather than cow him.

“They’re not just going to watch what we say,” Cheney said. “They’re going to watch what we do.”

And Biden’s message to Putin is that he’ll be watching what the Russian leader does next.

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