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Brief # 116 – Foreign Policy

A Preview of the Biden–Putin Summit

 

By Ibrahim Sultan

June 15, 2021

 

Policy Summary 

Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are having their first meeting on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. The two have a history that goes back a decade, their first meeting was in 2011 when Biden was the U.S. vice president and Putin Russia’s prime minister. They now sit as the head of their nuclear-armed states and are scheduled to meet in Biden’s first overseas trip since taking office and after the first face-to-face meetings between the leaders of the G7, which now excludes Russia.

President Biden has promised to strongly address the many grievances of the U.S. and NATO allies with Putin at the meeting. There are grievances with Russia that stretch from spreading false information online, to hacking U.S. institutions and companies and the potential of  war with Ukraine. There are numerous issues for Biden to address, none of which will be easy to resolve.

> Russian Hackings

There have been multiple cyberattacks and cybersecurity breaches at US government agencies and private sector organizations. Most of the attacks are thought to be linked to criminal hacker organizations based in Russia. The most recent attack targeted JBS the world’s largest meatpacking company; this attack caused meat production facilities in both the U.S. and Australia to shut down damaging supply chains. A month prior saw an attack on Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the United States, which caused a temporary shortage in fuel but widespread panic for fear of long-term scarcity, demonstrating the dangers of hacking supply chain companies. The largest cyberattack has been  the now infamous SolarWinds incident in which hackers could spy on private companies and government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department by accessing software provided by the US company SolarWinds. Federal investigators and cybersecurity experts claim that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, was likely responsible for the attack. The attacks highlighted weaknesses in U.S. cyber networks and the dangers of Russia’s hacking capabilities.

> Election interference

Though it was a contested claim at the time U.S. intelligence agencies and a bipartisan senate report released in 2020 detail how the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election favoring the presidency of Donald Trump over his rival Hillary Clinton. The Russian interference sought to stoke tensions and divide the voter base through spreading misinformation that encouraged divisive positions on thousands of fake social media accounts. They also succeeded in stealing emails from the DNC (Democratic National convention) and the Clinton campaign which were then released on WikiLeaks. The Russians  took similar actions during the 2020 presidential election; the Russian IRA (Internet Research Agency) used fake social media accounts, impersonating Americans, and official campaigns on both sides to sway public opinion in support of Trump.

> Conflict  in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine

In March 2014 Russian special forces occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Russia claimed to have been protecting Crimea’s  access to the Black Sea. The attack came as a response to the overthrow of Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych by a Ukrainian electorate seeking closer ties to the EU. Russia also has been supporting pro-Russia militia in Eastern Ukraine who are seeking to susceed. The conflict in this region has gone on for almost a decade and ahs result in the loss of over 13,000 lives

> Poisoning of Alexei Navalny

Putin has a history of aggressively going after his opponents, the greatest threat to his power domestically, Alexei Navalny, who has held anti-Kremlin demonstrations and leads the opposition movement to Putin’s rule, was poisoned in August 2020. Navalny was taken to Germany for emergency medical treatment. After waking up from a coma he returned to Russia only to be detained and sentenced to prison. Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, the same poison used on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer now residing in the U.K. .

Analysis 

Back in March when asked if he thought Putin was a killer President Biden responded with “I believe he is.”  He recently walked back from his earlier comments instead saying Putin is “bright, tough,.. and a worthy adversary”. Both Biden and Putin have acknowledged that relations between the two nations are at a low point. It is unlikely the upcoming meeting will lead to any short or intermediate-term changes. Putin has proved a challenge for multiple U.S. presidents and has not let international pressure or sanctions hinder his ambitions.

Biden has assured the American public a robust response to Putin and has attempted to renew faith in the U.S. to our allies. He has reaffirmed his commitment to NATO after years of former President Trump being at odds with the NATO member states, even calling the alliance obsolete. In meeting with European leaders before he meets with Putin, President Biden has taken a step in the right direction when compared to his predecessor who took Putin at his word. In meetings with other leaders concerned about Russia, he is attempting to present a unified voice with the U.S. at the helm after four years of isolationism. Biden’s long experience in foreign affairs and relationship with Putin will need to come into play during this first meeting that will surely set the tone of relations with Russia for the rest of his presidency.

Engagement Resources 

NBC News, Biden agrees U.S.- Russian relations are at a “low point” ahead of meeting with Putin,

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/ahead-meeting-putin-biden-agrees-u-s-russian-relations-are-n1270610

Businessinsider, The US is readying sanctions against Russia over the SolarWinds cyber-attack..,

https://www.businessinsider.com/solarwinds-hack-explained-government-agencies-cyber-security-2020-12

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