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President Joe Biden's upcoming meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin could arguably be the highest profile event of Biden’s first overseas trip, with Biden expected to challenge Putin on his crackdown on critics and cybersecurity, among other issues. Nick Schifrin previews the meeting between the U.S. president and the man who has controlled power in Russia for more than twenty years.
The highest profile event of President Biden's first trip abroad is set to take place just hours from now, his summit with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
Nick Schifrin previews the meeting between the U.S. president and the man who's led Russia for more than 20 years.
For critics of the Kremlin, Russia's never been a welcoming place.
But, this year, the state has increased repression and tried to silence all resistance. Last week, it labeled the organization led by opposition leader Alexei Navalny an extremist group, the equivalent of ISIS.
Navalny's helped inspire millions to call for Vladimir Putin to leave office. But three months before parliamentary elections, protests like these are now banned and the Kremlin is trying to suppress anyone anywhere who dares dissent.
Dimitry Gudkov, Russian Opposition Politician:
They crack down on the — not only on the opposition leaders, on independent journalists, independent bloggers. It seems like it's the massive repression.
Dimitry Gudkov is a former member of Parliament and opposition politician. He's nowhere near as popular as Navalny, but he posts videos highlighting government corruption, and criticizes Putin for rewriting the constitution to stay in power until 2036.
Really, it's an ideal career: Become the president, rewrite the laws to suit yourself, retire, become head of the mafia, and do whatever you want.
But, earlier this month, Gudkov said goodbye to his wife and fled Russia, after he was arrested and authorities threatened his family. He drove to Ukraine in the car where we conducted our interview.
The Kremlin is really afraid of people taking to the streets. That's why they decided to get rid of all opposition leaders who could lead the protest at that time.
President Biden promises to challenge Putin on his crackdown on critics.
Is there anything that the U.S. can do, do you think, to change Putin's behavior?
I don't think that it's possible to influence on Putin. I don't think Putin wants something from the United State: Just let me do what I want in my country. The United States, get away from here. Go.
That's what he wants.
Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center:
If President Biden were to raise issues about Russian domestic politics, I think President Putin would raise issues regarding American domestic politics. So, that's where the discussion will probably stop.
Dmitri Trenin directs the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. He says, for President Putin, domestic politics are a red line.
Another Putin red line, Ukraine. Last week, Putin issued a new warning on state TV that Ukraine's joining NATO was unacceptable because it could host U.S. missiles.
Vladimir Putin, Russian President:
If Ukraine becomes a NATO member, the flight to Moscow goes down to seven to 10 minutes. In order to shorten the time for us to seven to 10 minutes, we'd have to put rockets on the Canadian or Mexican border.
The topic of real, not hypothetical, missiles is actually what both Putin and Biden want to discuss. The only existing nuclear arms control treaty, New START, now expires in five years, after President Biden and Putin extended it earlier this year.
A decision by the two presidents to give a nod to the beginning of a dialogue on strategic stability issues is something that I would expect as the principal result of this Geneva meeting.
But it won't be easy, because the two sides have different priorities. The U.S. wants to limit Russia's new nuclear-propelled weapons, including one that blew up Florida in a Kremlin video.
The U.S. also wants to limit Russia's smaller tactical nuclear weapons. Russia wants to limit U.S. non-nuclear weapons and the U.S.' missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
Reaching a new agreement between the United States and Russia on strategic arms would be immensely more difficult now than concluding the New START treaty. There's also the cyber factor that has to be taken into account.
For the U.S., that cyber factor is perhaps the most pressing.
In April, many Americans struggled to get gas after a ransomware attack crippled the country's largest gas pipeline. Cyber criminals have targeted one of the world's largest meat processing companies, American hospitals, schools, police departments, a challenge that the FBI compares to 9/11.
Dmitri Alperovitch, Silverado Policy Accelerator:
This can't keep going on. And the vast majority of the criminals are operating out of Russia. And we need to demand that Vladimir Putin fix that problem and put these people in jail.
Dmitri Alperovitch is the chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, and grew up in Russia. He was the first to identify Russian hackers who targeted the 2016 election.
He says those hackers are state-sponsored, and Russia will never give them up. But he says Russia could be willing to crack down on cyber criminals.
Putin does not care about them. He's letting them operate within Russia because, right now, they suit his purpose of continuously harassing the West. But if he sees them as a liability, he will not hesitate to throw them into a penal colony in order to further his interests.
Alperovitch urges Biden to threaten sanctions against the core of the Russian economy, oil, gas, and its sovereign debt sales.
Putin believes in Russia's greatness. He is not going to bend to overt American pressure. But if you can tell him that, Vladimir, unless you arrest these 15 people, who are not part of the regime, those sanctions will go into place a couple of months from now.
Trenin warns that threat would be dangerous.
If that's the logic of the future of the relationship, then we're going down to a showdown and possibly a collision, a real one.
President Biden has long viewed skeptical of Putin, and often tells the same story about their 2011 meeting.
Joe Biden, President of the United States: I said, "I looked in your eyes, I don't think you have a soul."
George Stephanopoulos, ABC News:
So, you know Vladimir Putin. Do you think he's a killer?
Mm-hmm. I do.
On Sunday, President Biden doubted anything the U.S. offered would change Putin.
Why do you think he hasn't changed his behavior in spite of everything the U.S. has done to this point?
He's Vladimir Putin.
And, so, senior U.S. officials say tomorrow is less about breakthroughs than avoiding further breakups in a relationship both sides agree is worse than it's been in decades.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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