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Biden must stand firm in date with wily Putin

At the tail end of his first international trip after meetings with G-7 leaders and NATO members, President Biden will hold a one-day summit June 16 with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Biden, who proposed a summit during his April phone call with Mr. Putin, will confront a relationship which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently characterized as more acrimonious than during the Cold War.

The reason is not — as the Kremlin’s thought police would have us believe — that Mr. Biden called Mr. Putin a “killer”, after which Moscow theatrically recalled its ambassador for “consultations.” Over the past two decades, the KGB operative in the Kremlin has mounted an aggressive revitalization strategy focused on destabilizing the U.S. internally, driving a wedge between Washington and its NATO allies, and enhancing control over Russia’s historical regional sphere of influence.  

A revisionist power seeking to overthrow the international rules-based order in favor of its authoritarian kleptocratic model, Mr. Putin’s Russia invaded and occupied Georgia; was a co-conspirator in Syria’s and Iran’s attacks on civilians in Syria; poisoned former Russian military intelligence officer Sergey Skripal and oppositionist Alexei Navalny with a chemical nerve agent; invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea; interfered in U.S. and European elections; and launched the malicious SolarWinds cyber attack.

The U.S. is investigating whether the Kremlin oversaw or gave sanctuary to the cyberhacking group DarkSide, which mounted the debilitating recent ransomware attack against U.S. Colonial Pipeline’s critical infrastructure.

There are also serious allegations that Russia is responsible for the “Havana Syndrome” microwave attacks against U.S. officials such as  retired senior CIA officer Marc Polymeropolous, who suffered such serious medical trauma during a visit to Moscow in 2017 that he was forced into early retirement.

The U.S. has escalated sanctions and traded diplomatic expulsions and consulate closings with Russia.

But as Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously opined, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” A summit, even if it helps Mr. Putin enhance his stature at home and abroad, is preferable to the alternative.

President Biden will need to address a dizzying array of complex bilateral issues with Russia, most of which fall into the category of confrontation rather than collaboration.

Pre-summit, U.S. intelligence agencies always shifts into high gear, preparing leadership profiles of the key players, especially Mr. Putin and his national security team with a focus on their tactics and strategy. And a sense of history is invaluable.

Renowned U.S. diplomat Max Kampelman, an exceptionally skilled and renowned arms control negotiator who served with great distinction in Democratic and Republican administrations, was known to call out the Soviets’ penchant for putting “boulders in the road” to exact leverage by charging for their removal.  

Mr. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy is most certainly based on economic predation and ensuring the liberal principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights never make their way to Russian shores and threaten his regime’s security.  

But the Russian leader is also focused on deliberately attacking U.S. core national security interests with the most implausible deniability. He wants leverage to induce the U.S. to make concessions, which enable him to carry on with his aggressive foreign policy with the least damaging repercussions, especially to his struggling economy.  

Well aware that Russia’s GDP is the size of Italy’s and that — notwithstanding its nuclear weapons arsenal — Russia cannot compete with the U.S. globally the way the Soviet Union could, Mr. Putin relies on asymmetric espionage and military special operations to level the playing field.

President Biden said he wants a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia. But we need to do more, starting with hardening our defenses in cyberspace. We need to confront Russia’s aggression. For deterrence to work, the Kremlin needs to understand clearly we have the capacity and the will to defend our national security interests.  

A summit has value because Mr. Biden can state clearly and publicly where we see potential for common ground as well as our red lines, and what happens when they are crossed.

In 1985 President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev met in Geneva.  Mr. Biden would do well to remember Mr. Reagan’s masterful strategy. Deftly using soft and hard power, Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”, eloquently appealed to Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” countered Soviet expansion worldwide and negotiated comprehensive nuclear arms reductions.  

The Biden administration should internalize the Reagan lesson: When dealing with Russia, there can be no peace without strength.

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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