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Was the Biden-Putin Summit a Success?

The White House set clear red lines on cyberwar, but don’t expect much progress in the months to come.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Swiss President Guy Parmelin (C) leads U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet media during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Biden is meeting his Russian counterpart, Putin, for the first time as president in Geneva, Switzerland.
Swiss President Guy Parmelin (C) leads U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet media during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Biden is meeting his Russian counterpart, Putin, for the first time as president in Geneva, Switzerland. Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Are you recovered from the last couple of weeks of summit-palooza? It seemed as if President Joe Biden’s overseas meetings would never end.

Matthew Kroenig: Let’s dive right into foreign affairs. With our twin plagues of COVID-19 restrictions and cicadas now mostly behind us, there are few obvious subjects for small talk. We covered the first part of the president’s trip in our last column, but we didn’t get to the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And with the Iranian elections, Benjamin Netanyahu out of office in Israel, and the Taliban advances in Afghanistan, there is much to discuss.

EA: It’s certainly been a busy couple of weeks. And I’m really curious about your thoughts on the Biden-Putin summit. I thought it was fairly successful, but I’ve been surprised by how many in Washington—hawks and doves—generally agreed with that.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Are you recovered from the last couple of weeks of summit-palooza? It seemed as if President Joe Biden’s overseas meetings would never end.

Matthew Kroenig: Let’s dive right into foreign affairs. With our twin plagues of COVID-19 restrictions and cicadas now mostly behind us, there are few obvious subjects for small talk. We covered the first part of the president’s trip in our last column, but we didn’t get to the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And with the Iranian elections, Benjamin Netanyahu out of office in Israel, and the Taliban advances in Afghanistan, there is much to discuss.

EA: It’s certainly been a busy couple of weeks. And I’m really curious about your thoughts on the Biden-Putin summit. I thought it was fairly successful, but I’ve been surprised by how many in Washington—hawks and doves—generally agreed with that.

MK: Overall, I thought it went well. The relationship will remain mostly confrontational, and Biden pressed Putin on many concerns, including human rights, election meddling, and cyberattacks. But the administration also wants a “predictable, stable” relationship with Moscow and will look to engage on areas of mutual interest, including arms control. So, while I have some misgivings about the details, the search for a balanced approach makes sense.

 EA: That’s funny. I thought the summit signaled that the relationship would remain mostly focused on stability while acknowledging that there are still some elements of confrontation. It almost seems like a bit of a Rorschach test: Everyone saw what they wanted.

Partly that’s because the summit’s main outcome was simply resetting the status quo: returning ambassadors to Moscow and Washington and agreeing to talk further on issues related to arms control and cybersecurity, in particular. Once the two sides actually start those talks, I suspect we’ll see far more disagreement. There are big areas of contention in nearly everything, from new forms of nuclear weapons to missile defense and cyberproxies.

MK: Yes. It is too early to know. As Biden said at the post-summit press conference, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I suspect, for example, that the arms control talks will go nowhere. And after Biden waived sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany last month—essentially handing Moscow a major geopolitical victory—I do worry that Biden might be too soft on Russia.

You can’t deter all cyberattacks against everything. One needs to set clear red lines about the type of attack that will trigger serious retaliation and accept some risk below that threshold. It was classic deterrence theory in action.

But there was at least one substantive issue at the summit for which Biden took some heat and that I would like to defend. He apparently gave Putin a list of 16 types of U.S. critical infrastructure that should be off limits to cyberattacks. Critics said Biden basically handed Putin highly sensitive information and virtually invited Russia to attack everything not on the list, but I disagree. You can’t deter all cyberattacks against everything. One needs to set clear red lines about the type of attack that will trigger serious retaliation and accept some risk below that threshold. It was classic deterrence theory in action.

There is no indication that Putin agreed to the request, but the message still got through—both to Putin and to Russian cybercriminal gangs.

EA: Right! For those who don’t remember International Relations 101, that’s a really important point. Deterrence isn’t effective if it’s not credible. And it’s not credible to argue that everything is off limits; clearly, some things are more important to Washington than others.

So I appreciated the attempt by Biden to issue a clear deterrent threat of this kind. I do have a couple of nitpicks though: First, the list of 16 types of infrastructure was probably still too broad. It was basically just the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s list of critical infrastructure sectors, which includes things like “transportation” and “health care.” And second, as broad as it was, it still didn’t include a clear warning about the most important area of all: U.S. electoral systems! Americans might be pretty good at discrediting those without any Russian help—just look at the ongoing Arizona recount fiasco. But it’s still vital to ensure that there’s no outside meddling in our elections.

So good idea, poor implementation.

MK: Fair points. I also liked, however, that it was backed by a clear threat. As Biden said at the press conference, “We have significant cyber-capability. And [Putin] knows it. … If, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond with cyber.” 

EA: That was nicely unsubtle, I thought. And a reminder of the stakes of these talks. No one wants the United States or Russia attacking each other’s infrastructure, and the world simply doesn’t have a good set of global norms for behavior in cyberspace, where the United States is often one of the biggest offenders. These talks are likely to be extremely difficult but could provide a forum for that discussion to begin.

What about the strategic stability angle? You’re the nuclear expert: What will be the biggest areas of contention on arms control?

MK: The biggest challenge is that Russia likes the status quo. As I testified before the U.S. Senate last week, Moscow locks the United States in place with New START and then builds all kinds of nuclear weapons (like intermediate-range nuclear missiles and nuclear-armed submarine drones) not covered in the treaty. Washington wants to limit those weapons, but since the United States has nothing to trade in kind, Russia has very little incentive to agree to additional constraints. 

EA: Well, there’s always missile defense. Russian negotiators like Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov have already started hinting publicly that they would trade weapons restrictions for restrictions on U.S. ballistic missile defense systems. That actually seems like a pretty good deal, particularly given how poorly these systems perform in reality.

MK: Washington has not been willing to place any limits on missile defense to date, but I agree there might be some tradespace there in theory. On the other hand, missile defenses have greatly improved in recent years; just ask Israel about Iron Dome.

Speaking of the Middle East, what are your thoughts on Iran’s sham elections?

EA: Less of an election, more of a coronation for the supreme leader’s chosen candidate: Ebrahim Raisi. It’s a reminder that Iran—while more democratic than many of its Arab neighbors—is really only partially democratic. Voters get to choose candidates only from an approved list; some years, that list is relatively diverse in viewpoint, but this time around there was really only one plausible candidate. Small wonder that a majority of Iranians didn’t vote, with many others purposely spoiling their ballots.

The Supreme Leader calls the shots in Iran. It’s as if Donald Trump remained in office for life but every few years held elections for vice president in which voters got to choose between Ivanka Trump and Mike Pence.

MK: It is absurd that we treat Iran’s elections with any seriousness. It is an autocracy. Period. Freedom House rates Putin’s Russia (with a democracy score of 20/100) as more democratic than Iran (16/100). Iran’s president has very little power over the issues that matter most to the rest of the world (like foreign and defense policy), and, as you say, voters choose among a narrow set of candidates handpicked by the supreme leader. It would be as if Donald Trump remained in office for life but every few years held elections for vice president in which voters got to choose between Ivanka Trump and Mike Pence.

EA: Yeah, I think I’d boycott that one, too.

But that’s the glass-half-empty theory of these states, which political scientists describe as competitive autocracies or “hybrid regimes.” There’s also a glass-half-full theory, which is that these regimes are sometimes a stepping stone on the way to greater democratic freedoms. After all, if you look at the political development of the United States, the United Kingdom, or France, you’ll find periods that are not fully democratic. It was a lengthy process of democratization.

Sham election or not, everyone is stuck with Raisi, and the big question is what this means for Iran’s foreign policy and the ongoing negotiations about reviving the nuclear deal. He is a hard-liner’s hard-liner, after all, and the establishment in Iran has spent years trying to undermine outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s negotiations with the United States.

MK: There have been several smart pieces written about whether Raisi’s election helps or hurts the chances for a breakthrough in the Iran negotiations. I agree with Vali Nasr that in general it takes a Nixon to go to China, but in this case it doesn’t really matter. These decisions are made by the supreme leader, and Iran will return to the nuclear deal because it is a good deal for Iran. They get massive sanctions relief. They get to keep a latent nuclear weapons program. And the already insufficient restrictions on the nuclear program begin to expire in a few short years.

The only difficulty in the negotiations so far is that Tehran smells blood in the water. Iran’s negotiators know Biden badly wants this deal, so they are pressing for as many concessions as possible. Eventually, they will wring Washington dry, and we will all return to this terribly flawed deal.

EA: I think you’re probably right about Raisi’s role here. Rouhani’s team has indicated that it intends to wrap up negotiations before he leaves office, so this will probably have little effect on the return to the deal. And even hard-liners in Iran know that the country needs sanctions relief, or the supreme leader would never have allowed the deal in the first place.

But it may make it more difficult to achieve any follow-on negotiations with Iran. I know you and I are never going to agree on the original nuclear deal, but one of the most promising parts of the agreement was the potential to build follow-on negotiations with Iran on missiles, regional security, and other hot-button topics. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal undermined that possibility for four years, and now Raisi’s election may do the same. Ultimately, Washington may return to the original deal but get far less from it than we might have hoped in 2015.

MK: I agree that follow-on negotiations are unlikely to go anywhere. One of Raisi’s first acts as president was to declare that Iran would never negotiate limits on ballistic missiles or support for violent proxy groups. Everyone has core values on which they simply cannot compromise, like democracy for the United States and state-sponsored terrorism for Iran.

EA: Yet the United States acknowledges all the time that it’s willing to talk to and work with nondemocracies when it’s in the national interest to do so. Which suggests that there may be ways in which Washington could reduce Iran’s interest in creating regional proxies. But unfortunately, I suspect this argument is largely moot. I’m quite pessimistic about the prospects for a better U.S.-Iran relationship in the near term.

MK: I also found it amusing that many in the West were apparently surprised when Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, came out against the Vienna talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal. People seemed to think that Netanyahu was some sort of aberration, when, in fact, Israelis understand what Iran is up to better than anyone, and they know this deal is bad for their security.

EA: Israelis are divided on the issue, just like Americans and Iranians. Foreign Policy ran an interesting perspective back in April from the former head of Mossad and a former Israeli deputy defense minister—who are certainly within the mainstream of Israeli politics—arguing that the best way to prevent a nuclear threat from Iran is to return to the deal. So I understand why people were surprised, but it doesn’t look as if we’ll be seeing much change on that front.

Before we wrap up for the day, though, I wanted to get back to Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal from the country is proceeding, though it seems to be taking longer than initially expected. It now looks as if troops won’t be out by July 4, though they should still meet the Sept. 11 deadline. And there has been a spate of violence in the country, with the Taliban seizing some border posts from the Afghan government.

MK: I hate to say I told you so, but… Many other analysts and I warned that a complete U.S. withdrawal would create a power vacuum that the Taliban would only be too happy to fill. The Taliban have now taken over 50 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts since May, with two dozen falling last weekend alone.

I am afraid the Taliban are on their way to reconquering the country and that the United States will need to reverse course (as it did in Iraq) and return troops to Afghanistan to correct its mistakes.

It would be a major mistake to slow the withdrawal or to go back into Afghanistan. Even in the worst-case scenario, where the Taliban overrun Kabul, it still isn’t a major problem for U.S. security.

EA: Look, the Taliban were always going to make gains as the United States and its allies left Afghanistan. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. But I think it would be a major mistake to slow the withdrawal or to go back into Afghanistan. As I’ve said before, even in the worst-case scenario, where the Taliban overrun Kabul, it still isn’t a major problem for U.S. security. Washington retains some counterterrorism capabilities and has proved already that it can negotiate with the Taliban if need be. This isn’t anything Biden administration officials didn’t expect when the decision to withdraw was made.

MK: It is not easy to negotiate and retreat at the same time.

EA: Well, speaking of terrible defense, my beloved Scotland team has now been knocked out of Euro 2020. I’m off to root for whoever’s playing England.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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