We need to push back against Vladimir Putin. President Joe Biden needs to take a much harder line when he meets the Russian leader this week in Switzerland.
For too long, presidents of both parties have gone far too easy on Moscow’s most meddlesome man. If the United States does not do more to deter his attacks on our institutions and ideals, our democracy may become irreparably damaged in the coming years.
The line from the White House is that we seek a “stable and predictable” relationship with the Russian Federation. There’s only one problem with that approach. The Kremlin has precisely the opposite objectives. Its manipulation of foreign elections and other attacks on the West are expressly designed to be unpredictable, with the aim of increasing international instability.
I remember sitting in the Situation Room under President Barack Obama, listening to all the arguments on why we had to go easy on Putin: This was all for show and he just needed an off-ramp. Russia was a middling power that didn’t deserve our attention. Hitting back would only escalate the situation.
I believed they were wrong. Watching things get even worse in the intervening years, I am even more convinced that we have to do something different.
Expose Putin corruption
Our new Russia strategy should involve two things. First, Biden needs to inflict a higher cost. According to recent reports, Moscow has continued to hack into American government systems. Putin has overtly supported Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after he forced a Ryanair plane with an opposition journalist aboard to land in Minsk. We have also seen ongoing disinformation campaigns run from Russia against vaccines and other hot button political issues.
It is time to do more than toss out a few spies or slap sanctions on a couple of oligarchs. Biden should start by denying the state-run airline access to the United States. It is a strong national symbol and currently flies directly into four American cities year-round. We should ban the export of critical technology and goods to the country, along with sanctioning the Russian company working on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Western Europe.
We then need to go further.
Putin is already in a politically precarious spot. Exposing corruption at the Kremlin will hit him where it really hurts. Publishing a few of those intelligence files can fire a shot across his bow, with a warning there is more where that came from if he doesn’t change course. Increasing our spending on Russian-language public diplomacy programs would also create considerable concern. They were extraordinarily effective during the Cold War and could be even more so today. By showing we can directly and rapidly reach his people, the United States would significantly enhance our leverage over the former KGB officer.
The second course of action needs to lay out a clear series of consequences if Russia continues to meddle on such a massive scale. In addition to making more intelligence public and increasing spending on our Russian language influence operations, we could also extend NATO membership to more countries in Eastern Europe. Another option would be to move more American troops into countries like Georgia and Ukraine. The United States can also expand its offensive cyber activities, disrupting not only Russia’s hackers but also other government operations.
Biden needs to look Putin straight in the eye, raise his finger and tell him it’s time to knock it off. The days of restrained responses are over. The United States and many of its allies have had enough. Either Putin shapes up, or we will give him some of his own medicine.
I am not speaking aspirationally or theoretically. Serving on the National Security Council after Russia invaded Ukraine, I remember how we engaged in some of these aggressive responses and actually saw Moscow back off for a time. Putin does not respond to diplomatic notes or small, symbolic sanctions. He does understand when his political standing is threatened. We need to take the gloves off and land a few strong blows.
My worry is that Biden remains too focused on domestic issues and would much rather find a way to just contain some of Russia’s excessive exploits. His advisers may see delivering a few strong statements while standing next to Putin as sufficient to say it was better than Trump’s summit. That would be a terrible mistake and one that the Kremlin would interpret as permission to proceed pretty much along the same problematic path.
The key to watch in their meeting is the level of specificity.
The American president needs to do more than raise the specter of consequences. He needs to answer the what, when, why and how of our response. If Putin leaves Switzerland with deadlines and a sense that Biden is dead serious, it could start to change his calculus.
Were Putin to worry for the first time that his political fortunes might be in danger, then the danger for American democracy would decrease substantially.
Brett Bruen was director of global engagement in the Obama White House. He is now president of Global Situation Room, a public relations firm, and adjunct professor of crisis communications at Georgetown University.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden needs to get tough with Russia, stand up to Putin