Should President Joe Biden convey legitimacy upon a man who shares blame for the death of 400,000 or so Americans?
That’s one way of questioning whether Biden made the right choice in proposing the summit he is set to hold with Russian leader Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva.
Putin has rightly been denounced on many fronts. He violated international law in his brutish grab of Crimea. His government has mounted cyber attacks across the planet (see the recent Solar Winds hack) and provided haven to cyber criminals who have targeted corporations and governments (see the Colonial Pipeline caper). His repressive regime has thuggishly quashed democracy and dissent at home—unjustly locking up opposition leader Aleksei Navalny—and assassinated critics abroad. Money from Putin’s oligarch pals sloshes through the international economy, perverting the financial system. And, of course, Putin has worked to subvert liberal democracies around the globe, including the political system of the United States. In the case of America, he succeeded, and that success led to a massive number of deaths and tremendous misery in the US.
Does that sound hyperbolic? Here are the two key facts: Putin helped land Trump in the White House, and Trump’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Let’s start with the election of 2016. Except within the Trump cult, there is a widespread consensus that Russia waged information warfare during that campaign to aid the Trump campaign. That was the conclusion of the US intelligence community, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and the Senate Intelligence Committee (when it was controlled by the Republicans last year). As the Senate Intelligence Committee noted, the Kremlin’s covert social media campaign targeting the 2016 election was “almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump.” And there is also common sense, for the clandestine hack-and-dump operations conducted by Russian government hackers in 2016 targeted Hillary Clinton. The first big dump of cyber-purloined documents was designed to disrupt the Clinton campaign at the Democratic convention. And in October 2016, Russian-hacked emails from Democrats were leaked in a drip-drip-drip manner (through WikiLeaks) over the course of weeks to cause maximum potential damage to Clinton and to assist Trump. (They were deployed within hours of the revelation of the “grab ’em by the pussy” video.”)
As is well-known, a shift of less than 80,000 in the vote counts of three states (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan) would have swung the election to Clinton. In such a tight contest, any one of several factors could be decisive. Had Clinton campaigned more in these particular states. Had FBI director James Comey not notified Congress days before the election that the bureau was re-investigating Clinton’s emails. Had the Democrats paid more attention to Facebook. One of these what-ifs could have reversed the election results. And the same could be said for Putin’s assault on American democracy. Had the last four weeks of the campaign not been shaped by the daily release of stolen Democratic emails and the non-stop flow of news stories—had the Clinton camp not been hampered by this steady drumbeat of mini-scandals (some real, many not)—she could have ended up the first woman to win the White House. But Putin succeeded. His choice for president was elected with a significant assist from Moscow.
Putin has never publicly acknowledged his secret plot to help put Trump in power and, consequently, has never explained his motives. He clearly saw Clinton, who as secretary of state had harshly criticized Putin for his suppression of democracy and his cheatin’ ways, as a threat. Trump, on the other hand, had often expressed admiration for Putin and had voiced no concern about Putin’s corruption and viciousness. (In 2013, when Trump was holding his Miss Universe contest in Moscow, he suggested in a tweet that Putin might become his “new best friend.”) But one overall strategic Russian aim appeared to be exacerbating political divisions within the United States, and the Kremlin’s operators did not have to be geniuses to see that placing Trump in control would create and deepen chasms within America. He was the candidate of chaos, and they wanted chaos.
That chaos caused the most damage when the United States and the world was struck by the coronavirus crisis. The leading power on the globe was in the hands of a man who did not heed the advice of public health experts. Worse, he played down the profound threat confronting the nation and undermined science-based guidances. He repeatedly demonstrated more concern with his reelection prospects and television ratings than the health and safety of the citizenry. Trump took few of the steps any other president would have adopted. He eschewed testing (to keep the number of cases low); he did little to encourage mask-wearing and social distancing. He fueled the politicization of this horrific pandemic.
Numerous public health experts have declared that Trump’s response to the crisis caused many more deaths than would have otherwise occurred. A group of research papers published in March concluded that nearly 400,000 deaths would have been avoided if Trump had adopted extensive mask, social distancing, and testing protocols. Dr. Deborah Birx, the often-maligned coronavirus response coordinator in the Trump White House, has said the same: “I look at it this way: The first time, we have an excuse. There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.” This week, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States topped 600,000.
Trump’s inability to manage this crisis—to put national interest ahead of his own personal interest and compulsions—was not surprising. Anyone who helped this narcissistic demagogue attain the position of ultimate responsibility shares culpability for these deaths that did not have to happen. That includes Putin. His aim in 2016 was to harm the United States. He succeeded far more than he likely could have anticipated. (And after all that, according to a declassified US intelligence report released in March, Putin tried again to meddle in the 2020 election to boost Trump’s reelection prospects.)
So next week, we can expect to see Biden sit down with a man who helped bring much destruction and loss to the United States. What does the president hope to accomplish with this meeting? It is true that one can only make peace with an adversary and that in this interconnected, globalized world there are mutual interests for the United States and Russia to address, including the climate crisis, terrorism, and the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. There are many reasons for Washington to try to engage Moscow. And Biden aides are promising he will be tough with Putin. At the same time, Russia this week banned Navalny’s political movement, designating it an extremist network and threatening its organizers, donors, and social-media supporters with prosecution, in what was widely regarded as a signal to Biden: back off and don’t even think you can tell us how to handle our internal affairs.
Putin will obviously relish the attention the summit with Biden will bring him. Russia has been smacked in recent years with numerous economic sanctions for his militarism in Ukraine and cyber-attacks on the United States and other nations, and Moscow was booted out of the G-8 in 2014 following his annexation of Crimea. But now Putin will be presented on a global stage as an equal with the American president. Not praised, but at least welcomed into the conversation. This will certainly play well for Putin back home and be useful in his ongoing campaign to consolidate power within Russia and further cement his authoritarian rule. Will Biden squeeze anything out of Putin in return for this prize? No doubt, Biden, who has dealt with Putin in the past, believes he can deliver a strong message to the Russian leader that might cause Putin pause. But as of yet, there are no signs of any significant advances.
The Cold War—and its dangerous near-misses—demonstrated that engagement and discussion among foes is crucial for avoiding conflict and, perhaps, disaster. But there are ways for Washington and Moscow to pursue common goals without a high-profile summit that could yield a shine for Putin. He attacked American democracy—which remains in peril partly due to the Kremlin’s efforts—and his clandestine operation was part of a chain of events that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Americans. Putin, who is still a threat to the United States and democracy across the globe, has American blood on his hands. That ought not to be forgotten when his palm meets Biden’s.