Putin’s challenge to Alexei Navalny proves central dilemma for Biden
Sometimes it’s the words you don’t say that tell the real story. During his press conference following his meeting with US President Joe Biden, Russian leader Vladimir Putin declined to mention Alexei Navalny’s name.
Asked about the arrest of the opposition figure who was poisoned by the Russian government, Mr. Putin was typically intransigent. He “knew he was breaking Russian law,” he said when he traveled abroad for treatment. He “ignored the requirements of the law and, knowing this, he returned to Russia.”
Through translators, he used the term “this citizen” to refer to the 45-year-old dissident. It’s a familiar Putin tactic – subtly controlling the narrative through his use of language, dismissing any dissent with barely concealed disdain.
Putin’s challenge to Alexei Navalny’s fate captures a central dilemma for Joe Biden as he ended his week-long trip to Europe with a one-on-one meeting with the Russian leader. Can he change?
Wednesday’s meeting between the U.S. and Russian leaders was one of the most important bilateral meetings of Mr. Biden’s presidency to date and will dictate the shape of U.S.-Russian relations for at least a year. According to the two men, the meeting was positive.
Putin at his press conference said the two sides had “shown a determination to try to understand each other” and he described Mr. Biden as very “balanced”, “professional” and “experienced”. Biden, whose press conference came after Putin’s, said the tone had been “good” and “positive” and that no “strident action” had been taken.
But if the tone was cordial, the more important question is whether the content of the discussion will work.
As expected, challenges relating to human rights, Ukraine, cybersecurity and foreign policy were addressed.
Speaking after the meeting, Biden said he brought up human rights violations with Putin, presenting them as a central tenet of American democracy. “How can I be President of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” the US president said, saying it was “part of our country’s DNA”.
But during his press conference, Putin repeatedly referred to America’s own shortcomings – from crimes committed with guns to unrest over racial injustice to attack. of January 6 against the United States Capitol, as a means of deflecting questions about Russia. This whataboutism was not unexpected, and America will dismiss it as swagger. But in the end, it looks like the US side got few guarantees on Navalny’s fate or any steps Russia took to reassess its relationship with Belarus during the meeting, though Biden warned against it. the “devastating” consequences if Navalny dies in prison.
Likewise on cybersecurity, Putin was provocative during his press conference, denying Russia’s involvement in numerous cyber attacks around the world which are increasingly becoming a source of alarm in the West.
Biden said he gave Putin a list of 16 specific entities designated as critical infrastructure that should be banned. He said he asked the Russian president how he would feel if ransomware destroyed the pipelines that operate Russia’s oil fields, a reference to the recent attack on the colonial pipeline.
The two sides agreed to create a working group to look at cybersecurity. But as Biden said, “principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice.”
While the president said no threats were made during the meeting, he said he warned Russia that the United States would respond if basic cybersecurity standards were violated. Some sort of task force outcome could be available in three or six months, the US president has hinted. But as he added; “The proof of the pudding is in the diet.”
As he wrapped up his press conference, Biden became visibly angered by an American journalist who asked him why he was so confident that Putin would change. Biden dismissed the premise of the question and later gave an impromptu press conference with reporters as he boarded Air Force One for Washington, issuing a sheepish apology. “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”
But the question of trust and deliverables hovered over the perfect setting on Lake Geneva.
As the task forces get to work – a positive step as the United States attempts to coordinate with Russia on areas of common strategic interest – in the immediate term, the interaction between Washington and Moscow will likely be in the field of foreign policy.
As America begins the delicate process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, Russia’s role in the region will be important. Likewise, Biden said he stressed the importance of maintaining humanitarian corridors in Syria as well as Iran, where Russia is a signatory to the stalled nuclear deal.
Ensuring that Wednesday’s summit makes progress in areas of strategic US interest will be vital for the US side. Otherwise, the Geneva gathering could turn out to be little more than a grandiose occasion.