President Biden returned from his meetings with G7 and NATO leaders and his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to near-universal praise from the media and adulatory comments from his staff. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “I really do not believe that it is hyperbole to say that Joe Biden returns from this trip as the clear and the consensus leader of the free world.”
Sullivan’s statement isn’t only hyperbole. It’s the sort of self-adulation that emanates from self-doubt.
Biden’s performance, if we grade him kindly, could have been worse. Somehow.
Biden began by again demonstrating his declining mental acuity. He confused Syria with Libya three times and forgot that he had been introduced to South Africa’s president until the UK’s Boris Johnson reminded him.
Biden’s comments to NATO were interesting only for the weakness he displayed. He told the assembled leaders of NATO nations that they need not fear another riot at the Capitol like the one that occurred on Jan. 6 because the Republican Party is vastly diminished in numbers, its leadership is fractured, and the Trump wing of the party, while in control, was merely a significant minority.
Until Obama’s presidency, it was extraordinary for an American president to inject domestic politics in foreign affairs. Biden brought his 2022 midterm campaign to Europe, demonstrating his groundless fear of a coup d’etat. Biden transmitted to the other NATO members a fear of instability in the U.S. government that they had never had before.
All that was part of the context of the Putin summit.
The rest of the context in which the Putin summit occurred has been crafted since Biden’s inauguration. It is an enormous understatement to say that he has been appeasing Putin since then.
A few examples suffice. Biden granted Putin a five-year extension of the New START Treaty on Putin’s terms. Biden should have — and didn’t — require that the Russians’ new weapon systems, such as their nuclear-powered hypersonic cruise missiles, be included in the treaty’s limitations because they are not now.
When Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline permits and then canceled former President Trump’s sanctions on the Nordstream 2 pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany and other European nations, he disadvantaged American energy supplies and then ensured that Europe will be more dependent on Russian energy, which, of course, the Russians can use as leverage against any NATO initiatives.
Biden is apparently bent on making America dependent on foreign energy supplies again. U.S. imports of Russian oil, which aren’t a major part of our oil imports, are now reportedly at an 11-year high.
The other example, which the White House vehemently denies, is Biden’s reported stalling of military aid to Ukraine. The Washington Post, Politico, and Breitbart all reported that Biden delayed a lethal aid package for Ukraine — short-range air defense systems, anti-tank missiles, and small arms — when Putin promised to withdraw the massed troops, tanks, and combat aircraft from the Russian border with Ukraine. The troops and tanks were withdrawn partially, but only to a small distance from the border. The aircraft — if they were withdrawn at all, which isn’t clear — could be repositioned in a few hours.
The Nordstream 2 sanctions cancellation, the New START extension, and the reported delay of lethal aid to Ukraine were all at the top of Putin’s list of things he wanted from Biden. Biden gave Putin what he wanted most before the summit began.
Biden created two “red lines” in his conversation with Putin. One creates the threat of “devastating” fallout if Putin’s principal political opponent Alexei Navalny — who is imprisoned under bogus charges — dies in prison. Biden should have insisted on Navalny’s release from prison, but chose, instead, to create a pale red line.
It is in Putin’s interest to keep Navalny alive in prison and continue to outlaw his followers’ party because they are the strongest — almost only — organized opposition to Putin.
Biden’s second red line was created by his presenting Putin with a list of U.S. infrastructure systems that he said should be off-limits to Russian cyberattacks. The list is almost certainly the public one published by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
The list includes categories of industrial and government sectors ranging from the energy industry (such as the Colonial Pipeline, which Russian cyber attackers closed for about a week with a ransomware attack in May) to financial services and food and agriculture (such as the attack, probably made by Russian hackers in late May, against JBS, one of the largest meat suppliers in America).
The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, I am told by a trusted source, was so sophisticated that it must have been perpetrated — like the SolarWinds attack — by a government entity. (The SolarWinds attack was perpetrated by the Russians.) My source said that the Colonial attack had the cyber “fingerprints” of other Russian government–perpetrated attacks. The FBI has attributed the JBS attack to “REvil,” aka “Sodinokibi,” another Russian-speaking cyber gang. The JBS attackers used the same sort of software that was used in the Colonial Pipeline attack.
Democratic presidents have a lousy record in enforcing the red lines they draw. When Obama drew a red line for Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime against their further use of chemical weapons in 2012, he threatened consequences for any further attacks. When Assad made more attacks, Obama did nothing. We can expect from Biden the same red-line enforcement as Obama, which is to say none at all.
Biden will have the usual litany of excuses when he refuses to enforce his red line against the next round of Russian attacks on our infrastructure. He will claim, for example, that despite the intelligence that blames Putin’s regime for the previous Russian attacks, the next round aren’t the responsibility of the Russian government because the gangs that perpetrate them aren’t provably directed by the Putin regime.
Biden, after the next attack and the ones after that, will satisfy himself by demanding that Putin put an end to them. But he’ll give Putin the benefit of the doubt by assuming Putin can’t control the Russian hackers, who may or may not be government-controlled. It is nonsense now and will be when the next attacks occur.
And they will. Companies such as Colonial Pipeline and JBS are vulnerable to ransomware attacks because they don’t take rudimentary precautions such as backing up their data automatically every few hours. There is no reason to believe that the other vulnerable companies within the list Biden gave Putin protect themselves any better.
Biden’s proposed 2022 defense budget decreases the amount of money spent on offensive cyberwar and increases spending on defensive cyberwar. Spending more on defensive cyberwar is good, but decreasing offensive cyberwar spending is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing.
Nations such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are all perpetrating cyberattacks on our defense and intelligence agencies, their contractors, and commercial companies at a rate of tens of thousands of attacks every day. We need, urgently, to turn our government cyberwarriors loose to target the cyber systems of these nations to discourage further aggressions. Our offensives shouldn’t be ransomware attacks, but we must be active in penetrating our adversaries’ systems to gather intelligence and to destroy or disrupt those who are targeting our computer networks.
Biden won’t turn our cyberwarriors loose to do that any more than he will enforce his pale red line against Russian cyberattacks. You can take that to the bank.