President Biden is in Europe for the first major foreign tour of his administration. He will meet with the leaders of America’s various European allies to discuss a wide range of topics. But the main event, the sitdown that is highly anticipated, will be his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16.
Biden made his desired outcome the summit well-known months in advance. The president seeks a “stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with US interests.” This is a rather modest and reasonable goal. Biden doesn’t want any of the areas of tension between the two countries to evolve into a full-blown crisis. But there is an open question concerning how the president and his team will square this goal with President Biden’s overarching framework for conducting foreign affairs in 2021.
The president sees the world as a contest between democracies and autocracies. Autocrats “think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus,” Biden said during a speech before Congress in April. “We have to prove democracy still works—that our government still works and we can deliver for our people,” he emphasized.
The main autocracy Biden has in mind is the one run by Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while not nearly as powerful as China, is certainly on the short list of autocracies Biden seeks to contain.
The president has many hot button issues to address with the former KGB man. These issues include: possible new strategic arms tal-ks, cyber threats, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Russia’s meddling in US elections, the status of jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a daunting list of topics, but there are still other issues that could come up between the two.
Let’s briefly examine three areas the Biden administration has been working on. First, the Biden administration has already extended the New START Treaty, which limits the two countries’ strategic nuclear arms. The treaty, signed on April 8, 2010, was due to expire in February, but the Biden administration exercised a clause in the deal that allowed for it to be extended for five more years. The Russians agreed to this measure. The Biden team hopes that New START can serve as a building block for a more robust arms control agreement, but that remains to be seen.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, provided the press with an overview of the European diplomatic tour earlier this week. Sullivan explained that the US has already expressed its “concerns about Russia’s new nuclear systems,” which are presumably not covered by the treaty. According to Sullivan, the US wants “additional elements … added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber or other areas.” However, Sullivan said, “that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”
Second, cyber threats against the US are on the agenda. When a reporter asked Sullivan if the recent ransomware attacks on companies operating in the US and elsewhere will be discussed, he responded: “Yes, 100 percent.” Sullivan went on to make a distinction that deserves more attention. He drew a line between the m-assive breach of SolarWi-nds and other recent ransom operations. “We do not judge that the Russian government has been behind these recent ransomware attacks, but we do judge that actors in Russia have,” Sullivan said. “And we be-lieve that Russia can take and must take steps to deal with it.” Some brief background is in order.
Last year, Russian hackers, reportedly working for the Kremlin’s premier intelligence service (the SVR), infected software used by SolarWinds to update code on thousands of computers. From March 2020 to June 2020, according to the company, 18,000 customers downloaded the update code, though there is some ambiguity concerning how many computers were truly compromised. Regardless, this was a massive breach that infected dozens of leading companies, as well as a number of US government agencies. As reported by NPR, the hackers even “found their way, rather embarrassingly, into the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA—the office at the Department of Homeland Security whose job it is to protect federal computer networks from cyberattacks.” The malicious code inserted into the SolarWinds update allowed hackers to remotely access computers and steal sensitive data and emails. The ramifications of the hack are still being assessed. The US openly blames Russia for the SolarWinds hack. In April, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the Russian government for a range of actions, including the SolarWinds breach.
By way of contrast, the administration is treating recent ransomware attacks as criminal endeavors—not intelligence operations. This is understandable insofar as the ransomware schemes are intended to generate millions of dollars for criminals and are not designed for intelligence collection or other forms of subterfuge. The problem is that the Kremlin could be, at a minimum, turning a blind eye to such activities and thereby tacitly endorsing the attacks.
The recent ransomware hacks attributed to Russian “actors” include the attacks on JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Colonial Pipeline. JBS is one of America’s largest meat processers and a global leader in the industry. According to the Wall Street Journal, JBS “paid an $11 million ransom to cybercriminals” after they disrupted plant operations, and therefore America’s supply of meat, in early June. The payment was made in bitcoin. Similarly, according to Bloomberg, Colonial paid a ransom of $4.4 million to the Russian hacker group known as DarkSide after the “largest fuel pipeline” in the US was prevented from providing fuel in a timely fashion on the East Coast. In advance of the Biden-Putin summit, Sullivan told reporters that the administration is “not going to be in the business of telegraphing our punches publicly or issuing threats publicly.”
“I’m just going to say that we believe Russia has a responsibility,” Sullivan said. “And, of course, any country that doesn’t act, then the United States will have to consider what its options are, following that.” In other words, the Kremlin has a “responsibility” to crackdown on the cyber criminals stealing from companies by interrupting the provision of basic goods and services. If Moscow fails to do so, then that’s telling. A third issue is just as thorny as the others—Russia’s push into Ukraine.
In the days leading up to his trip, the president clearly stated his support for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. “President Biden affirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of ongoing Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea,” according to the White House’s readout of Biden’s call with Zelensky on June 7.
Shortly before their call, however, Zelensky expressed his displeasure with the Biden administration’s decision to give up its opposition to Russia’s de-velopment of the Nord Str-eam 2 pipeline. The issue is contentious for the Ukrai-nians, as Russia gas currently flows through its bo-rders on the way to Europe. Nord Stream 2 will allow Moscow to circumvent Uk-raine while delivering gas to Germany. Accor-ding to Axios, Zelensky described the pipeline as “a weapon, a real weapon … in the hands of the Russian Federation.” Zelensky added: “It is not very understandable … that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States.”
Asked if the pipeline would be a subject of discussion with the Germans or Russians, Sullivan responded: “I expect Nord Stream 2 will come up in conversations with the Germans. Again, I don’t want to negotiate publicly on this issue. They understand well our concerns. But we do want to talk to them about what the implications of this pipeline are for energy security in Europe and for Ukraine.”
The summary above is just a cursory look at the points of tension between the US and Russia. The Biden administration has repeatedly stated it does not think that relations between the US and Russia “need to continue on a negative trajectory.” Is there any reason to think that Putin agrees?
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.