The day before the White House announced that President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin would hold their first in-person meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the US ambassador to Russia privately told lawmakers he’s worried about Washington giving concessions to Moscow without getting anything in return.
In a two-hour briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May, described to CNN by two people familiar with the matter, Ambassador John Sullivan suggested that Putin is not acting in good faith with the US and the Biden administration risks repeating the same mistakes of its predecessors if it does not approach the issue with clear eyes, according to one of the sources.
The overarching theme of Sullivan’s briefing was that Putin “has not really changed his stripes,” said the first source, despite efforts by the current administration and its predecessors to curb Putin’s malign behavior with sticks, like sanctions, and to shape Russia’s actions in other areas using diplomacy, including through in-person engagements.
Sullivan’s warnings are emblematic of the concerns that officials and lawmakers have expressed ahead of the summit, which is set to be held next week after Biden meets with NATO and European allies in the United Kingdom and Belgium. And within Biden’s administration there has been vigorous debate about the right way to engage with Putin, according to multiple people familiar with the matter, particularly within the State Department.
Many of Biden’s fellow Democrats, along with Republicans, have grave concerns about the idea of his granting a meeting with Putin in the wake of aggressive Russian actions along the Ukrainian border and the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to comment “on what was said during a classified hearing” but called the characterizations of Sullivan’s testimony “wildly off base.”
“The Ambassador has been deeply engaged in preparations for the President’s upcoming meeting with President Putin,” Price said. “As we engage Russia in ways that advance American interests, we remain clear eyed about the challenges that Russia poses and will work to hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions.”
Price added that Sullivan will return to Moscow in the coming weeks and that the administration remains “committed to open channels of communication with the Russian government, both to advance US interests and to reduce the risk of miscalculation between our countries.”
A White House spokesperson also said in a statement that “President Biden and Ambassador Sullivan – indeed, our full national security team – are fully aligned on our approach to Russia and the upcoming summit with President Putin.”
Sullivan, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump but was asked by Biden to stay on in his role, has been advising the President’s national security team ahead of the summit and has attended all of the White House’s meetings on Russia leading up to the meeting. The whirlwind European trip was deliberately choreographed so that Biden would meet with key partners first and go into the Putin summit “with the wind at his back,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday. The administration used a similar playbook ahead of a US-China meeting in Alaska earlier this year – Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Indo-Pacific partners beforehand to reaffirm US support for democratic allies in the region.
Biden has told his aides he believes Putin responds to signs of strength, something he feels is better conveyed in person rather than over the phone, according to people familiar with the conversation. He has held two phone calls with the Russian President that officials describe as direct – but without the type of personal interaction and body language derived from an in-person meeting.
Looming over the Geneva talks are the summits Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, held with Putin, which drew heavy criticism after Trump appeared to side with the Russian leader on interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump and Putin also met alone, without US aides or interpreters present, on multiple occasions. Sullivan on Monday said the White House was still determining the format of the Biden-Putin meeting and whether there would be a joint press conference afterward.
Ambassador Sullivan’s briefing last month appears to have left an impression on senators. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told CNN after the session – which he declined to comment on directly – that he didn’t see an upside to the Geneva summit.
“Vladimir Putin is in the midst of an attempt to assassinate and then silence a political opponent, attacking a political opponent with a banned chemical weapon in a foreign country,” Kaine said, referring to Russia’s attack on Navalny with the deadly poison Novichok. “Do you think you can negotiate with a guy like that?”
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, was similarly wary upon emerging from the briefing.
“I think we need to have a lot more backbone and make it very clear that what Russia is doing is unacceptable to us, and that there are going to be severe consequences for their malign actions,” Romney told CNN.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN that Biden gave a “huge gift to Putin” ahead of the summit by not sanctioning the companies behind a controversial Russia-Germany gas pipeline that critics say will increase Russia’s geopolitical leverage over Europe.
Kaine aside, several Senate Democrats said they were confident that Biden would handle himself well with Putin, pointing to his experience both directly with the Russian leader and his long foreign policy record.
“I’m not at all worried that he’s going to get tricked or trapped,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. “This is one of those instances where you’re glad you have someone who served on the Foreign Relations Committee and vice president and various capacities in foreign policy for a long time. This would be a tough one for a rookie.”
“He knows how to handle the issues, but he’s also very firm about our mission and our values,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. “I have all the confidence he’ll handle him properly,” Cardin said.
Not interested in a reset
Biden, known for his blunt talk to foreign leaders, will thus be walking a tightrope between forcefully condemning Putin’s regional aggression, election interference efforts and hacking campaigns, and working to facilitate a more “stable and predictable” American relationship with Russia.
“What sounded like a good idea a month ago, I bet is causing a lot of regret now,” said Jim Townsend, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO Policy, referring to the summit.
Townsend pointed to a recent episode where the Russia-backed leader of Belarus forced down a plane to arrest a dissident journalist.
“That showed that the problems with Russia are really severe,” Townsend said. “Biden is going to have to really dig in because a lot of people are watching. There is more of a premium now for him to come out looking tough.”
The administration has emphasized in recent days that it does not intend to “reset” relations with Russia, which would imply a willingness to forgive Moscow’s past aggression. But it also wants to facilitate an early dialogue with the Kremlin to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings – something Biden finds easier to do directly, a White House official told CNN.
Putin, too, has a “highly personalized style of decision-making,” national security adviser Sullivan told reporters on Monday. “So, it is important for President Biden to sit down with him face to face.”
Sullivan acknowledged, though, that the meeting is unlikely to yield immediate results.
“We don’t think of US-Russia summits in terms of deliverables,” he said. “We are thinking of it as an opportunity to communicate what our intentions and capabilities are.”
Still, Putin is one of the few world leaders with whom Biden does not have a robust personal relationship, for better or worse.
“It has been a fairly correct, albeit not cordial, relationship,” said a former US official who worked closely with Biden on foreign policy issues. “I wouldn’t say there is anything to it beyond that. Based on what I have seen of their interactions, it’s just one professional politician talking to another. Not cold and hostile, but also not warm and chummy. It’s just frank.”
That dynamic was on display last time they met in 2011, when Biden was vice president and the Obama administration was working on resetting the US-Russia relationship. When Putin suddenly proposed during a joint press conference that the countries introduce a “visa-free regime of exchange,” Biden called it a “good idea.” He backtracked when he realized that wasn’t his call to make but managed to turn the awkward moment into a lighthearted, but pointed, swipe at Russia’s political system.
“Mr. Prime Minister, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a real difference between being President and Vice President,” he told Putin, who was serving as prime minister at the time because he was constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term as president. “The very good news is the President and I agree 100% on the need to continue to establish a closer and closer relationship.”
By 2014, the reset had all but failed with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Relations between Washington and the Kremlin deteriorated further when Russia interfered in the 2016 election and spiraled following Russia’s use of banned chemical nerve agents against perceived traitors on European soil while continuing its enduring disinformation campaigns targeting American voters.
The administration earlier this year blamed Russia for the massive cyber-espionage campaign known as SolarWinds that affected dozens of federal agencies and private companies across the country.
“We are not interested in a reset nor do we want escalation with Russia,” Eric Green, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia, said during an event hosted by the Center for New American Security on Friday. Green said the White House believes “this a much different Russia” than it was in 2009, one that is generally harder to deal with.
But the administration also recognizes that some important things have not changed in the last decade, he said, specifically the fact that Russia still has one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. The country is also still a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, “which means, whether we like it or not, we have to work with them on certain core challenges out there in the world,” Green said. “But we have no illusions about what is happening inside Russia and we don’t see a lot of opportunities for real constructive engagement in a lot of areas.”
‘A killer’ without a soul
Fundamentally, Biden believes that Putin, like most world leaders, is “a rational actor” who will ultimately always act in his own best interests, said two former officials who worked closely with Biden on these issues.
But the President also understands that Putin’s values are unlikely to ever align with traditional western values, said one of the former officials, and Biden is proud of his record of not mincing words with the Russian leader. Over the years, Biden has repeatedly recounted to aides the story of when he first met with Putin and told him directly that, contrary to what George W. Bush had apparently surmised upon their first meeting a decade earlier, Biden didn’t think Putin had a soul at all.
Biden told The New Yorker that Putin seemed pleased by the assessment. “We understand each other,” Biden said Putin told him.
Biden gave a blunt answer earlier this year when he was asked by ABC whether he believes Putin is “a killer.”
“Yes,” he replied.
The remark sparked uproar in Russia, which responded by recalling its ambassador to the US and warning of an “irreversible deterioration of relations.”
Ambassador Sullivan, meanwhile, has still not returned to Moscow after being asked to leave by the Kremlin – a sign that relations remain at a low point. The administration has asserted, though, that Biden is meeting with Putin because of their differences, and not in spite of them.
“At the end of the day, what we are looking to do is for the two presidents to be able to send a clear signal … to their teams on questions of strategic stability so we can make progress on arms control and other nuclear areas to reduce tension and instability in that aspect of their relationship,” the national security adviser told reporters on Monday.
“And second,” he added, “being able to look President Putin in the eye and say, ‘This is what America’s expectations are. This is what America stands for. This is what America’s all about.’”