by Garry Kasparov
The Biden administration brought a dramatic change in America’s tone toward Russia and Vladimir Putin. In March President Biden bluntly and accurately called Mr. Putin “a killer,” indicating he saw no need to be diplomatic about the leader of a regime that has repeatedly attacked U.S. interests—and, as last week’s sanctions announcements made clear, the U.S. itself.
But tone doesn’t count for much unless it’s backed by consistent action, which had been lacking. Mr. Putin is no master strategist, but he reads people well and senses weakness with animal cunning. Mr. Biden has to walk the walk after talking so much talk, or Mr. Putin will assume that the new U.S. administration is as feckless as the previous two.
On April 13, Messrs. Biden and Putin spoke on the phone for the second time. The White House readout includes Russian hacking and election interference and is strong on Ukraine, where Mr. Putin is again amassing forces.
Then comes the final sentence, like the twist in a horror movie. “President Biden . . . proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months.” A summit? With a killer? In one stroke, Mr. Biden gave Mr. Putin exactly what he craves, equal status with the president of the United States. Even if it never comes to pass, the invitation sends the message that Mr. Putin is irreplaceable, still worthy of the support of the oligarchs and elites whose fortunes he guarantees. President Trump was rightly lambasted for granting Mr. Putin the 2018 Helsinki summit, which did nothing for U.S. interests and a great deal for Mr. Putin’s. This would be no better. Calling it diplomacy ignores that diplomacy is supposed to have a point.
The ending of the readout was also notable for failing to mention Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose health was deteriorating even before he began a hunger strike to protest his treatment in prison.
Such blunders seem inexplicable, especially considering the strong sanctions the U.S. announced two days later. In a series of statements followed by a rare Biden press conference, the U.S. assigned clear blame on Russian intelligence services for the SolarWinds cyberattack, attempts to interfere with the 2020 election, and the continued occupation of Crimea.
Along with targeting individuals and companies involved in those actions, the U.S. moved to block American institutions from participating in the Russian sovereign-debt market. This is a significant step beyond the usual tit-for-tat games that Mr. Putin is happy to play with the U.S. and Europe. He cares nothing for Russia or its people—but he cares a great deal about power and money.
With that in mind, if the U.S. is serious about deterring Mr. Putin, there should also be targeted sanctions, including asset seizure, on his oligarch cronies, their families and their companies. If you support Mr. Putin’s mafia dictatorship and profit from it, you should also pay the price when he oversteps.
On Wednesday, the U.S. canceled the deployment of two ships to the Black Sea, where they were headed to keep an eye on Mr. Putin’s military buildup in and around Ukraine. Again Mr. Putin the aggressor is rewarded with concessions, guaranteeing not peace but further aggression. It’s the same pattern that has already cost more than 14,000 lives in Ukraine, as well as the 298 innocents aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the passenger jet Mr. Putin’s forces shot down in 2014. On Friday, Mr. Putin answered Mr. Biden’s call for de-escalation by criminalizing Mr. Navalny’s political organization and blocking entrance to the Sea of Azov, further cutting off Ukraine.
The mixed messages from the White House are even more troubling because their source is unknown. The Tuesday phone call took place while Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were abroad, which leads me to wonder whose idea it was to undermine the sanctions with a summit offer. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the invitation “wasn’t precooked or preset.” Was this a synapse firing off some Cold War nostalgia, or are there other voices in Mr. Biden’s ear?
John Kerry, one of the agents of President Obama’s catastrophic Russia appeasement policies as secretary of state, is roaming about the globe with his new climate-envoy title. He recently met in India with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. If Mr. Kerry has influence with Mr. Biden—and if he still has his rare gift for getting nothing for something—he may be promoting worthless “green deals” with Russia and China in exchange for things they care about, like summits, pipelines and taking human rights off the table. A struggle between geopolitical realists and appeasers could become another split in the Biden White House, along with the expected policy tug-of-war between moderates and progressives. Mr. Biden says he wants a “predictable” relationship with Mr. Putin, but that’s exactly what he has. Mr. Putin attacks; the West retaliates weakly, then offers concessions for dialogue until Mr. Putin attacks again.
It’s pleasant to talk about diplomacy, but diplomacy has never changed the behavior of a dictator. The U.S., combined with its allies in the free world, has the ability to threaten an overwhelming response to Mr. Putin’s invasions, hacking, election meddling and assassinations. What it has always lacked is the will to do so.
Mr. Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative.