President Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the next 25 hours. Sadly, for American security, he shows up with a self-dealt weak hand that could have been much stronger.
We in the Trump administration created real leverage against Russia he could have used. Instead, he has chosen to abandon it. Even in just a few months in office, Biden has already signaled to Putin that he is timid and unprepared to confront the Russian challenge – a weakness that ex-KGB agent Putin surely senses.
I hope Biden will exercise the options available to him to right this ship and secure America from Russian malign activity.
The Trump administration was tougher on Russia than any other since the end of the Cold War – something you will never hear the media acknowledge. Whether imposing an unprecedented sanctions campaign against Russian entities, arming our friends in Ukraine with weapons of war to resist Russian aggression, convincing our NATO allies to pony up $400 billion in new defense spending, or other measures, we reasserted American strength to thwart Putin’s dream of a restored Russian empire.
But Biden has already begun squandering this leverage, in part by telegraphing climate change as his top national security priority. In remarks on this trip to American troops stationed in the United Kingdom, he recounted a story from his vice president days. He said the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the military’s top generals – told him that "global warming" was "the greatest threat facing America."
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Encouraging our warfighters to adopt this ridiculous mindset – one apparently shared by what are supposed to be some of America’s most gifted military leaders – is extremely dangerous. It tells aggressors that our strategic priorities are out of whack, and we are ripe to be taken advantage of. Biden needs to make clear to Putin that our military places Russian aggression in the highest echelon of threats, and he will support our armed forces in deterring it.
Along the same lines, President Biden must make clear that climate change is absolutely not the only item Russia must address to make him happy. In fact, Biden must realize that Putin would love nothing more than to see the American left’s Green New Deal come to fruition.
Any promises Putin makes of tackling climate change together are hollow. Russia is a major petroleum producing nation that will gain geopolitical leverage worldwide if America cuts back our oil and gas production. A Climate Change First agenda is foolish in more ways than one.
On the cyber front, Biden must tell Putin that cyberattacks will be addressed in no different a manner than other attacks on America from Russian soil. Last month, cybercriminals pulled off a ransomware attack targeting the Colonial pipeline – an essential energy artery transporting nearly half of the East Coast’s fuel supply. The evidence points to those hackers operating inside Russia, just as many keyboard criminals seeking to extort and steal from Americans do.
Biden should also threaten a merciless cyber response against Russia if government-backed cyberattacks and meddling in our democracy continue.
President Trump’s national security team coordinated to give the executive branch greater authority to respond to such attacks. Biden must use that latitude to hunt down and cripple these digital terrorists, and demand that Putin likewise refuse to let them operate with impunity inside Russia.
Biden should also threaten a merciless cyber response against Russia if government-backed cyberattacks and meddling in our democracy continue – one that should strike at the heart of Russia’s security apparatus and Putin’s inner circle of kleptocrats, if necessary.
President Biden must make clear that he is prepared to reverse his hesitancy to unilaterally project American power. Biden showed rank hypocrisy in canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline while allowing Russia to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline supplying gas to Germany. This senseless move will cause America’s allies to become more dependent on Russian energy.
The cronyism stinks, too. The CEO of Nord Stream, Matthias Warnig, was an agent in the East German secret police who reportedly worked with Putin when he was a KGB agent posted in Germany.
Biden should stop Nord Stream 2 dead in its tracks by imposing sanctions on entities involved in its financing and construction, including Gazprom, the Russian state-owned natural gas giant. The people to be most seriously hurt by stopping the project are German elites corrupted by Moscow’s money.
With all this being said, there is still room to cooperate on narrow common interests. Biden must demand that critical areas of security cooperation continue.
In 2017, when I ran the Central Intelligence Agency, we tipped off Russia about an impending terrorist attack in St. Petersburg that would have killed many, possibly including Americans. Although the CIA and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service were far from friends, I never put politics ahead of saving innocent lives.
Cooperation between these two agencies was strong in the Trump administration, causing Americans to be better protected from threats. Continuing reciprocal intelligence sharing on terrorist activity is crucial to our national security.
Finally, Biden should make the case to Putin that cozying up to China will make his country a tributary state to the Chinese Communist Party. In the long run, Russia’s better bet is separating from the CCP.
Biden should push Putin to pressure the CCP to join the U.S.-Russia New START nuclear weapons treaty. By helping arrest an ongoing Chinese nuclear buildup, Putin will help save himself and the world from potential devastation at the hands of a regime even more aggressive than his own.
Putin could also win a bit of goodwill from the West by releasing the imprisoned democratic activist Alexei Navalny, and honoring his people’s basic freedoms – a point Biden also should raise.
In the 1980s, I commanded a tank unit patrolling the Iron Curtain. Our drills involved precise and unapologetic shows of firepower, because we knew the Russians respected strength above all. That same Russian attitude was on display again and again when I served in Congress, as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and secretary of State.
For years, Democrats complained that President Trump wasn’t tough on Russia, while ignoring the facts. Now President Biden has a chance to walk the talk. If Biden apologizes for America or casts pie-in-the-sky visions for cooperation, Putin will sense weakness, and America’s Russia policy will be in for a long three and a half years.