SALT LAKE CITY — After President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face-to-face for the first time Wednesday, Utah Rep. Chris Stewart says the new U.S. leader has a challenge ahead of him.
"Contrary to many people's public understanding, the previous president was very firm on Russia," Stewart, R-Utah, said.
President Donald Trump allowed for weapons to be sold to Ukraine for self-defense, while President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden only allowed food to be sent there amid Russian intervention, he said.
Trump was "forceful" on NATO members paying their dues and increasing spending on defense to counter Russian aggression, Stewart said. The former president put diplomatic pressure on Europe, primarily Germany, to not buy oil and gas from Russia, and convinced them against it until Biden took office and those countries changed their minds, he said.
"President Biden has got a challenge, and that is to continue with this firm pressure. He's already weakened much of that or least some of it," Stewart said.
But Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said it's still early.
"Maybe he'll come through on those things and I hope that he does," he said. "We're in a wait-and-see mode on where he'll end up on some of these issues."
Biden characterized his three-hour meeting with Putin in Geneva during which he raised issues around cybersecurity and human rights as "good, positive." There also were some modest outcomes, including an agreement to return each country's ambassador to their post.
"I did what I came to do," Biden said in a press conference.
He called Wednesday's meeting a starting point.
"This is about how we move from here," the president said. "We'll find out in the next six months to a year whether or not we have a strategic dialogue that matters."
Biden said he gave Putin a list of 16 "critical infrastructure" entities in the U.S., including the energy sector and water systems, that should be off-limits to cyberattacks. He said responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware attacks within their borders.
The president said he and Putin agreed to task experts in both countries to work on specific areas that should be free from cyberattacks and to follow up on specific cases that originate in Russia and the U.S.
Stewart has called on Biden to take a firm stand against Russian-backed cyberattacks, tweeting, "We can't take Putin at his word. Russia is training, funding, and protecting cyber-terrorist groups."
Stewart said it is a bipartisan issue, noting he and two Democratic House members sent a letter to Biden last week encouraging him to signal a willingness to strike back against cyberattacks and ransomware attacks.
"This isn't a bunch of Republicans anxious to criticize the president if he's not firm on this," he said, adding the U.S. has left itself vulnerable.
Stewart said he also encouraged Trump to take a more aggressive stance with countries and transnational criminal organizations that attack without paying any cost at all.
A slap on the wrist isn't going to deter Russian-backed cyber attacks. It's time to use some of our offensive capabilities. pic.twitter.com/MGbaQtoqTi— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) June 16, 2021
"We're entirely defensive in our posture when I think we should use some of our offensive tools to make them pay a price," he said. "There's no disincentive at all right now for them attacking us, whether they're attacking the U.S. government or U.S. businesses."
Biden said he pointed out to Putin that the U.S. has "significant" cyber capabilities.
"If in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond in a cyber way. He knows," the president said.
Stewart said discussions about what would be off-limits to cyberattacks could be productive "as long as they're based on reality." There's a difference between an independent criminal organization that is not supported by the U.S. government and those that are "demonstrably" supported by the Russian government, "although they would deny it."
Biden said he told Putin that human rights would always be on the table.
"I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else, it's for the American people," Biden said. "I made it clear to President Putin that we'll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights because that's who we are."
Stewart said Biden did a good job on that issue.
"I thought he said it just right," he said. "It's deep in our DNA to protect human rights."
Biden said he told Putin the U.S. has an "unwavering" commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the two leaders agreed to pursue diplomacy related to the Minsk agreement to halt war in the Donbas region of Ukraine.