Much to the surprise of a puzzled pundit corps, history may well conclude that, while President Joe Biden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin produced no big-deal breaking news headline, their summit may prove to be one of the 21st century’s pivotal events.
We may soon find out.
As Biden told reporters and the world after the summit ended: “What is going to happen next is we’re going to be able to look back … in three to six months, and say, ‘Did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out, did it work? … Are we closer to a major strategic stability?’ …That’s going to be the test.”
It is going to be Putin’s test — a pass/fail test. And here’s how it happened: Biden and Putin created two joint working groups — one, to halt the menace of global cyberattacks that may be the nukes of the new age; the other to reduce the still-menacing risk posed by the old nuclear arsenals.
Creating working groups may seem boring bureaucratic news, but they could prove to be a very positive big deal — because it means U.S. and Russian officials will again be working together. (Just like they were shortly after 9/11, when Russia’s general in charge of rocketry regaled me in his Kremlin office with tales of how he just returned from the USA where, to his shock and awe, his U.S. general counterpart took him to inspect a top-secret U.S. nuclear missile silo!)
Also, not only is this Putin’s test, but he knows what the one-word pass/fail answer is: “Stop!”
U.S. experts are convinced Putin had to have approved the two recent ransomware cyberattacks in the United States, in which Russia-based criminals shut down a major oil pipeline and a leading meat producer. Also, U.S. intelligence agencies announced long ago that Putin personally approved massive cyber-sabotage of the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential campaigns.
The key moment at the Geneva summit may well have been the threat that was not a threat moment. Discussing cyberattacks, Biden calculatedly turned the tables on Putin: “I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off-limits to attack — period,” Biden told reporters. “ … I gave them a list … 16 specific entities … defined as critical infrastructure under U.S. policy, from the energy sector to our water systems.
“When I talked about the [oil] pipeline that cyber hit for $5 million — that ransomware hit in the United States — I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?’ He said it would matter. This is not about just our self-interest; it’s about a mutual self-interest.” (Remember: The late John McCain once called Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.”)
Thursday morning, a television interviewer asked former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to sum up Biden’s performance at the summit. “I thought it was … a master class in diplomacy,” she said. “You have to put yourself in the shoes of the other person sitting across from you, so you know … what they want.”
Exactly. Now Putin may find it helpful to think back to a grand plan he once had for making Russia a major player in the global economy — and how he almost made it happen. Until, in a burst of anger, he mucked things up for himself and Russia.
I’ve called it Putin’s Sochi Two-Step. Russia was economically stressed and isolated from the global economy prior to 2014 when Putin almost pulled off a brilliant, but risky, gamble: 1. Putin spent a fortune to make Sochi the February 2014 Winter Olympics site, winning global acclaim; 2. Putin, as rotating chair of the G-8, also arranged for Sochi to host the group’s economic meeting later that June — and he planned to use Russia’s new respect to attract huge international businesses and investors.
But instead, after the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine agreed to new trade ties with Europe, spurning Russia. Putin considered that a national shame. Enraged, he militarily seized Crimea. Of course the G-8 canceled its Sochi meeting, kicked Russia out and renamed itself the G-7. Russia’s economy has suffered ever since, made ever-worse by Putin’s hard-line militarism and cyberattacks.
At the summit, Biden adroitly maneuvered Putin into a win-win position he could never have captured militarily: a chance that can gain Russia a re-entry into the global economy, and gain the rest of us a measure of peace.
Now Putin has to do some major rethinking about just what he wants his legacy to be.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.
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