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Can The United States Usefully Engage With Vladimir Putin's Russia?


How, if at all, can the United States usefully engage with Vladimir Putin's Russia? President Biden may be finding out today. He is meeting with the Russian leader in an ornate stone house from the 1700s surrounded by a park and rose gardens in Geneva. The many U.S. officials who have dealt with Putin over the years include our next guest.

General Wesley Clark was the NATO supreme allied commander up until the year 2000, back when Vladimir Putin was Russia's new president. He is now at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations. General Clark, welcome back.

WESLEY CLARK: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So you've been watching this Russian president for more than 20 years. Has he changed much?

CLARK: Actually, his aim has been very consistent. He wants to restore the Soviet space and control in Eastern Europe and to regain Russia's influence on the world stage.

INSKEEP: And are U.S. allies in Europe now on the same page in how to confront that continued effort by Vladimir Putin?

CLARK: Well, I'm not sure they're actually on the same page. They're all - they all have various concerns. But Germany's always had a very special, difficult relationship with Russia, even going back to the days of the Weimar Republic, when there was cooperation in contravention of international treaties. Hitler actually sent Russia military goods before World War II. And even today, Germans, they lust after the opportunity to sell industrial goods into Germany. And of course, now there's the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being connected, which will make Germany dependent on Russian national - natural gas, so complicated relationships.

INSKEEP: To say the least, although, of course, Germany was a place that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, could go for safety for a little while before he went back to Russia and ended up in prison. So they're all over the place. Do you think, though, that President Biden has been more successful in getting more of a united front to face Moscow?

CLARK: Absolutely. I think he's done a masterful job of planning and organizing, as well as orchestrating the responses, both in the G-7, the NATO summit with EU leaders yesterday. And this is the Biden strategy. It's focus on China, try to stabilize Russia...

INSKEEP: Well, let's...

CLARK: ...Build a...

INSKEEP: ...Talk about...

CLARK: ...Russian relationship, let's say.

INSKEEP: That's interesting that you mention that. So you're saying that China is the big, long-term concern the United States faces. And is Russia more of a strategic distraction that just has to be managed?

CLARK: Exactly. Russia's a spoiler. Russia is a - they're - Putin is a scavenger. What you give him, he'll take. He's a disruptor. And he's been rewarded for that disruption. Now he's meeting as an equal with the president of the United States. And so he gets some rewards out of disruption. The question is - can this disruptor and scavenger be managed?

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to talk that through if we can, General Clark. I'm just thinking about recent history and some of the different disruptions that Russia has been linked to, ranging from election interference to various kinds of cyberattacks to invasions of its neighbor Ukraine. This is just a partial list. President Obama, when he was late in his two terms, told Putin face-to-face, cut it out, referring to Russian election interference. Of course, Russia didn't bother to do that. President Trump was personally somehow enamored of Vladimir Putin and took his word at whatever he said. But Congress did impose sanctions on Russia, which also seemed to have had very little effect. What can Biden do that other presidents have not?

CLARK: Well, I think he's going to have to be very clear about what the consequences will be. And those consequences have to include the use of the U.S. dollar as a principal weapon in the relationship. Russia is dependent on U.S. banking and international banking for credit. Russia imports thousands of goods for its strategic military buildup from the West, couldn't do it without access to Western credit. And of course, Putin is rumored to have maybe a hundred billion dollars hidden in Western deposits. We probably know where some of that is. So really, it's not about a military confrontation. It's about telling Putin what the consequences will be of his continued behavior if he doesn't change his spots.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about cyberattacks here. NATO leaders got together because, of course, President Biden was meeting with other NATO leaders in recent days in Brussels. And they put out a statement that said, quote, "The impact of significant malicious, cumulative cyberactivities might, in certain circumstances, be considered as amounting to an armed attack." Now (laughter), there's a lot of qualifiers in there. But they're saying, at some point, a cyberattack is an act of war, and we at NATO could respond as if we're at war. How can the United States realistically respond to Russia's activities?

CLARK: Well, I'm sure we could take down parts of the Russian electricity grid. We could shut off their banking system. We could do a lot of different things, if we would. The issue on this is, first, the United States is much better at offensive cyber than we are at defensive cyber. Just as in the Cold War, we were better at being able to lob missiles than we were at being able to defend against them. And secondly, we're the most vulnerable country on cyberwar because, in the name of efficiency, we have really moved into cyber in all of our critical infrastructure, as well as banking. So we're more vulnerable probably than Russia is.

INSKEEP: And I guess we're heading into the 5G world, where even your refrigerator or your dishwasher might be connected to the internet and might be vulnerable to some kind of an attack.

CLARK: That's right. And as they say, these are more, let's call them, attack surfaces. And if you could work your way through your neighbor's dishwasher into the electricity grid, no telling what you could do.

INSKEEP: General Clark, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

CLARK: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wesley Clark served as NATO supreme allied commander from 1997 to 2000. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.