White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Friday was grilled on President Biden’s decision to agree to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin without setting conditions — with one reporter asking if the decision could be seen as “weakness.”
The president offered a summer summit in Europe during a Thursday call with Putin after Biden appeared to blink on a decision to send warships to the Black Sea over Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Pentagon ordered a U-turn by two US destroyers.
A reporter asked Psaki at her daily press briefing, “Why would you announce a summit intention without a commitment? …. A high level meeting of this sort is often a point of leverage with the world leader… why aren’t there conditions?”
Psaki didn’t directly answer the question. She instead said that Biden warned Putin of consequences for misdeeds in the Thursday call — which followed new US sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats over alleged hacking.
Biden was “clear that there would be consequences for the actions, whether it was the hacking of SolarWinds or other problematic behavior by Russian leadership. And the president offered that… to send the message that we will have disagreement, we’re not going to hold back on that. But our objective is to have a predictable and stable relationship,” Psaki said.
The reporter pressed Psaki, saying that if Putin had rejected the conditions-free summit offer, “wouldn’t that indicate some weakness on the part of the American administration here?”
Psaki replied, “I think the president’s view is that Russia is on the outside of the global community in many respects at this point in time. It’s the G7 not the G8… We’ve put sanctions in place in order to send a clear message that there should be consequences for the actions. The Europeans have also done that. What the president is offering is a bridge back. And so certainly he believes it’s in their interest to take him up on that offer.”
The possible summit with Putin may be Biden’s first overseas trip as president — a potential PR boon to the Kremlin strongman.
Psaki was not directly asked about the Pentagon pulling back the destroyers from the Black Sea. But she was pressed on Biden’s omission of any mention of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from his Friday afternoon remarks announcing a possible summit.
“[Biden] was announcing steps in reaction to the other parts of the review. We had already announced sanctions as a related to Alexei Navalny,” she said.
Psaki’s press conference occurred at the same time as Russia’s foreign ministry was announcing the expulsion of 10 US diplomats in reciprocity for the expulsion of the same number of Russian diplomats on Thursday.
Although Biden as a candidate routinely attacked then-President Donald Trump for not punishing Russia after a report last year that Russia may have offered bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan, he didn’t mention the issue Thursday after a US intelligence assessment that there was only low or moderate confidence in that allegation.
A Putin summit carries political risk for Biden. Trump met with Putin in 2018 in Helsinki, Finland, and received widespread criticism of his remarks appearing to accept Putin’s denial of hacking Democrats in 2016. Trump said he misspoke.