President Joe Biden met as scheduled today with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and there wasn’t much in the way of fireworks. Putin’s tone in his post-meeting press conference had considerably less “smug asshole having a good time” on his face than in his last meetings with an American president, go figure, but the general tone was of cautious optimism.
For Putin’s part, he called the meeting “very constructive” and announced that the two nations had agreed to return ambassadors to posts currently vacant. What he wasn’t willing to entertain, however, was any notion that his quasi-dictatorship needed to improve human rights in his country, stop the crackdown on opposition politicians and activists, or stop murdering enemies of the state outright.
It needs to be mentioned that Nalvany—whose name Putin refused to utter—is in prison right now because he survived an assassination attempt only to be jailed afterwards for not checking in with Russian authorities while in a German hospital bed. As for the rest of Russia’s crackdowns on Putin’s political opponents, the Russian version of our own Sen. Mitch McConnell lied, bluffed, and whatabouted his way through by comparing Russian opposition to Black Lives Matters protesters and Capitol insurrectionists both, specifically noting the killing of Ashli Babbett by law enforcement as justification for Russian state murders.
Putin also simply denied that his country had hosted recent cyberattacks that have roiled American fuel and meat markets in recent weeks.
In other words, we can’t expect any hard reset in U.S.-Russia relations. The two nations may be staffing diplomatic posts that had gone vacant in recent diplomatic tit-for-tats, but there won’t be any verbal concessions from Putin on the general thuggery of his own rule. Putin remains what he always has been: a troll. He even trolled past U.S. presidents a bit, though it’s not likely Trump will notice.
The comparison to McConnell was not just me being flip; both men are gleeful public gaslighters who justify extreme political acts with a relentless barrage of all-out lies. Both respond to political criticism by pivoting immediately to claims that their opponents are actually the ones doing the thing. It is a typical characteristic of strongmen and would-be strongmen. Donald Trump made it embarrassing for everyone because he was so unsubtle that he gave away the trick, but other perennially dishonest political leaders won’t be giving it up.
When the time came for Biden to give his own press conference, he was a bit more specific about what was discussed. Aside from reiterating a United States’ commitment to human rights, Biden said he was looking to set “rules of the road” to abide by in U.S-Russia interactions. This included giving Putin a list of 16 “critical infrastructure” sectors that the United States believes should be “off limits” for cyberattacks, which can presumably be taken as a warning of which sorts of actions would precipitate a severe U.S. response.
“I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability,” Biden noted later.
Biden set out other red lines as well. He says he told Putin that if opposition leader Alexey Navalny were to die in Russian custody, the consequences would be “devastating” for Russia. But Biden says “there were no threats, just simple assertions … We talked about basic, fundamental things.”
Taking a pointedly neutral, practical tone, Biden said the U.S.-Russia relationship was “not about trust. This is about self-interest” and “verifying” that self-interest.
The adults, at least, are back in charge. That won’t convince the Putin government to abandon political violence or escalating cybercrimes; Biden’s main goals here are to reset the boundaries that once existed before Trump became Putin’s unwitting (?) accomplice. Biden’s most pressing need might have been to show Putin that the United States is no longer ruled by a blowhardian incompetent.