Opinion | What It Means to Get Tough on Putin

U.S. presidents need to bring three different types of toughness to their dealings with Moscow.

Opinion | What It Means to Get Tough on Putin

Speaking abroad for the first time as president, Joe Biden on Wednesday elicited cheers for vowing to get tough on Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He told U.S. troops at a British airbase that he planned to “meet with Mr. Putin, to let him know what I want him to know.” The service members exploded into applause for what they hailed as a tough message to a menacing adversary.

Was Biden’s message really all that “tough?” After all, what he was calling for—a meeting to talk with the Russian leader—is practically the definition of diplomacy and dialogue, which Biden has advocated since April. In the same speech, Biden repeated his goal of a more “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia, which some commentators believe is an overly soft approach, especially after Putin’s recent crackdown on Alexei Navalny’s organization and the “state-sponsored hijacking” of a civilian aircraft by the pro-Kremlin regime in Belarus.

Yet the fact is, the cheering troops are right: Biden is being tough on Putin, but not just because he’s saying the right things. When it comes to the difficult, high-stakes U.S.-Russia relationship, toughness doesn’t mean refusing to talk to the other side, even when they’ve engaged in bad behavior. American presidents over the years have shown that successfully managing this relationship demands three different kinds of toughness: talking tough, toughing it out, and hanging tough. Though they can be easily overshadowed by the political theater of U.S.-Russia conflict, these three kinds of toughness are essential foundations for any communication between Washington and Moscow to bear fruit.

Talking tough is certainly part of a successful approach. Ronald Reagan famously used fighting words against the Soviets, describing his Cold War strategy as “we win, they lose” and even casting the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Biden has been clear about how he sees the other side, calling Putin a “killer” and suggesting he has no soul. Contrast that with Donald Trump, whose kind words for Putin provoked an outpouring of hawkish rhetoric on Russia from practically every other part of the U.S. government, and made Trump look isolated and weak.

But tough talk also means clearly defining red lines against unacceptable behavior and what happens if those lines are crossed—and ensuring the other side believes you will to do what you say. President Barack Obama famously declared Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a red line in Syria, but when that line was crossed, he backed down from using force. This helped enable Russia’s subsequent intervention to save the Assad regime from collapse.

In Geneva, Biden must not only tell Putin to stop Russian hacking, but draw clear lines between competition in cyber space and criminal ransomware attacks, like those on JBS and the Colonial Pipeline, which Biden has said responsible states must not tolerate. Tough words only matter if their meaning is clear to the other side, and since the Russians know the United States will not abandon its own cyber espionage and cyber warfare capabilities, the focus has to be squarely on cyber crime, on which the two sides can actually agree to crack down.

The next step is to make sure Putin knows Biden will deliver if his red line is crossed. U.S. officials say “all options” are on the table in response to criminal cyber attacks, and Biden himself has promised punishment. These tough words are most effective as credible threats of future action. That’s why Biden’s executive order in April authorizing sanctions on Putin’s closest allies and on sovereign Russian debt made clear the United States could do more in the future (though Biden took care to emphasize that he did not want to “kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict”).

A tough message is just the start. Biden must also be prepared to tough it out, through what will be difficult negotiations in Geneva and perhaps afterwards. In the 1990s and early 2000s, U.S. officials often sought “good” meetings with their Russian counterparts, but got nowhere on the most divisive issues—Russia’s human rights record, corruption, and relations with former Soviet neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia. In contrast, during the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet negotiations often started with a limited agenda, mostly on nuclear weapons. But by hanging tough through long and difficult talks, leaders were eventually able to bring in other difficult topics like the Middle East and even human rights.

Once he addresses the immediate priorities of nuclear arms control and cyber crime, Biden should be ready for the grueling negotiations needed on the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine, support for Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus and attempts to strangle Russian civil society, including Navalny’s anti-corruption movement. Biden must be tough enough to withstand not just Putin’s pressure tactics, but also the political onslaught from Russia hawks in Washington who will say that even talking to Putin is a misguided concession.

Finally, Biden needs to hang tough on Russia for the long term. This means recognizing that on some issues, he simply will not be able to get an outcome favorable to U.S. interests—no matter how tough he talks or how doggedly he toughs it out on the thorniest issues. In these cases, the key is to keep up sustained pressure over a longer period of time. America’s non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States throughout the Cold War is a good example, as is the U.S. response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In February, Biden made clear he would not recognize the illegal seizure, issuing a simple, powerful statement: “Crimea is Ukraine.”

Hanging tough also means enhancing American resilience. Knowing that some provocative and destabilizing Russian behavior is not going to stop, toughness means becoming less vulnerable to it in the first place. The Kremlin has reaped a huge multiplier effect from election interference, serving its aim of increasing chaos and infighting within the United States. It has also exploited gaps over trade, migration and democratic values between the United States and some of its allies. Putin won’t stop unless Biden can lead Americans, including his own party, in the extremely tough work of rebuilding bipartisan cooperation in Washington, repairing international alliances, and restoring civility in public life.

Biden impressed his audience in the United Kingdom with his tough talk and his willingness to take on Putin. But the full measure of Biden’s toughness will be whether he can bring clarity, credibility and persistence to the enormous challenge of managing U.S.-Russia relations. Biden will need that same arsenal of toughness on the home front, too, to help Americans “build back better.” If he is up to that challenge, then he will have more than earned those service members’ applause.