You don’t play nice with a killer

Editorial: Realism plus?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have had their much anticipated summit meeting in Switzerland. Now the question is: Will it improve anything?

Will Putin cease meddling in other countries, including our own?

Will he cease persecuting dissidents and lovers of freedom in Russia?

Will it lead to better U.S.-Russian relations?

Biden’s own answer was: “We’ll see.”

That’s not encouraging, for there is little ground for optimism.

So, the question then becomes: What will Biden do when what we see is not a change but more of the same?

No president would show all his cards in a situation like our current one with Russia.

And it is better that neither president saber-rattled in the meeting.

But it is hard to avoid the sinking feeling that the answer may be: The U.S. president will not do much at all about V. Putin.

There are limits, of course, to what any U.S. president can do about any tyrant in any foreign land.

But Putin could not be blamed for assuming there will be no real test of his limits.

Biden’s argument for chastising and containing Putin might be called realism, plus.

He knows we cannot dictate terms to Putin.

He also knows we cannot trust him.

He knows Russia is a brutal autocracy, of the kind he has vowed to oppose.

But Biden’s basic argument is that world opinion and economic self-interest will bring Putin around.

That is, it is in Putin’s interest to seek the approval of civilized nations and not to be seen as a rogue autocrat leading a rogue state.

It is in his interest to accept international norms.

If he wants expanded U.S. trade and trade with the NATO countries, he will clean up his act.

If he wants U.S. business investment, he will cease kidnapping and jailing U.S. businessmen, like Michael Calvey.

In short, the new realism assumes Putin is a rational actor.

Call it realism, plus hope.

But why would Putin be a more rational actor after the summit than in the years before?

All these reasoning calculations could have been made by him prior to the summit — for many years prior.

Why would he start caring that the world thinks him a thug, now?

It was Biden, after all, who called Mr. Putin “a killer.”

He was right.

Killers usually do not seek the approval of rule followers.

So there is no reason to believe that Putin has been in any way chastened by this meeting.

Moreover, Biden’s promise that if Putin persists in his Putin ways, “we will respond,” probably does not change much, either.

And restoring full diplomatic relations, now promised, is probably not the right signal to send.

Realism really means that the life of one man — like dissident Alexei Navalny, who is now being slowly killed in a gulag — is not sufficient cause for a new cold war.

But what if the cold war is already on?

And what if Putin did not get, and does not plan on receiving and reading, the West’s memo about reason and reputation and good opinion?

The good opinion of the West, and cordiality with the United States, did not stop the Putin regime from poisoning dissidents, from jailing them or, yes, from killing them.

So, maybe the way to get the dictator’s attention, and to drive home the larger point about democracies having as much guts and staying power as autocracies, is to say: The consequences are now. We are not giving you another chance. Free Navalny and free Calvey now. And then we will trade robustly with you and send a new U.S. ambassador.

Maybe the true realism is standing for American values as well as interests.

Maybe playing nice with a killer and warning that one day there will be consequences isn’t realistic at all.

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