Checkmate: Biden’s Nord Stream giveaway ended Putin showdown before it began

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By John J. Metzler

Were there great expectations for the summit meeting in Geneva between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin? Certainly not, but in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. president’s week of transatlantic diplomacy at the G-7 in Britain, and the NATO meeting in Belgium, a clear momentum seemed to favor Biden; if nothing else the president appeared immersed in the economic and defense concerns of Euroland and thus should have been at his political prime.

Sadly, the summit, set in the splendor of Geneva and bathed in Swiss Alpine sunshine was substantially underwhelming.  Expected media drama fizzled.

Part of the problem was that a key card the United States held, namely its sanctions over the controversial Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, was foolishly played and surrendered to Moscow a month before the meeting.

Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden

When President Joe Biden dropped bipartisan backed sanctions on Nord Stream in May, Putin gained a precious piece on the geopolitical chessboard. This remains a sobering reality.

The Nord Stream giveaway to Russia opened another cash flow from Western Europe to the Kremlin coffers.  Biden had inadvertently scored an own goal and stoic Vlad was smirking.

Cybersecurity was a key topic of discussions as it certainly should be. The United States and European countries have faced a plethora of cyber attacks and ransom demands on government and businesses. Some but clearly not all come from Russia. China, Iran and North Korea are among other offenders. Yet while Russian criminal gangs are key players in this dark hacking game, do they have official or unofficial state sponsorship? Likely so. But tracing a cyberattack presents a very murky task and not as clear as following an underwater pipeline or negotiating arms control.

Earlier the NATO Summit Communiqué stated, “Our nations continue to face threats and challenges from both state and non-state actors who use hybrid activities to target our political institutions, our public opinion, and the security of our citizens.”

NATO added, “Cyber threats to the security of the Alliance are complex, destructive, coercive, and becoming ever more frequent.  This has been recently illustrated by ransomware incidents and other malicious cyber activity targeting our critical infrastructure and democratic institutions, which might have systemic effects and cause significant harm.”

Surprisingly, President Biden handed Putin a list of sixteen sites which are “off limits” to cyber  attacks. In other words we are telling the Russians our particular vulnerabilities and hoping they will play fair. Is this for real?  Does this allow for the Russian President to give a curt nod to his mendacious state sanctioned hackers to hit other 97 percent of targets in the USA?

As to the bigger picture. Vladimir Putin wanted this Summit not so much for political gains but for his own political stature and standing. Negotiating with the American president puts Putin on a global platform recalling Russia’s past standing as a superpower.  This significantly plays to his own domestic audience across Russia not to mention the developing world.

Gary Kasparov, a noted Russian dissident and former chess master asserts that for Putin the meeting “emboldens him and shows he is the Big Boss.”  Putin relishes and plays to the role of a Mafia boss.  Kasparov told FOX news, “Putin got what he wanted.”

Indeed, there is also a key question about media optics; typically at the conclusion of such summits, there’s a joint press conference where both Presidents, standing alongside each other, take media questions. This did not happen in Geneva. Vladimir Putin was free to engage in a long and swerving 55-minute press conference where he weaved a clever net with largely unchallenged assertions. There was no American President standing alongside to pushback with counterpoints.  Putin stood unchallenged on a global media stage.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) stated, “Biden did not threaten his power.”

Later Biden’s press conference was short and called upon pre-selected correspondents to answer pre-picked questions.  Despite this clear advantage, Joe Biden still had a rhetorical meltdown with a reporter.

But what about questions on Ukraine, Moscow’s meddling in American elections in 2016 and 2020, Russia closing down beleaguered Syria’s humanitarian aid corridors, American citizens held in Russian prisons, etc.?

But here’s a larger message after a week of high-level meetings.  The NATO Communique described Russia as a “threat” but China as a “challenge.” While Washington is fighting over threats and rhetorical semantics with the Kremlin, a new dangerous dawn is rising in the East. Beijing’s Marxist mandarins are pleased the West remains fixated on Russia.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]