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Op-ed: As Biden prepares to meet Putin, he should learn from Kennedy’s 1961 summit with Khrushchev

Do not expect President Biden to call attention to the fact that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva coincides with the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s disastrous Vienna Summit with Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961.

Yet nothing could provide Biden a more useful warning than the narrative of that two-day meeting, the first such superpower summit of the television era, which I recounted from oral histories and long-classified documents in my book, “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.” 

Kennedy’s unwarranted confidence and inadequate preparations, coming to the meeting like Biden when he was just a few months into office, collided with Khrushchev’s ideological determination and brutal rhetorical offensive. Moscow’s leader hammered relentlessly at Kennedy’s resolve to defend U.S. interests in Europe, and particularly Berlin, whose freedom had become the Cold War’s defining issue.

Khrushchev came away with an increased conviction that Kennedy was fundamentally weak and indecisive, a view that had been fueled by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles just two months earlier, an operation that Kennedy had reluctantly backed and then half-heartedly supported.

Khrushchev also emerged from Vienna confident that he could move to permanently close the open border between East and West Berlin, through which his East German allies were bleeding refugees to the jobs and prosperity of the West. Two months later, East German forces would begin to construct the Berlin Wall with Soviet backing, and it would stand for the next 28 years as the symbol of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist.

That, in turn, would be followed a little more than a year later in October 1962 by the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the narrowest escape the United States had from a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy had hoped that by acquiescing to the Berlin Wall’s construction that he could ease tensions with Moscow and advance nuclear weapons talks, but instead Khrushchev’s perception of Kennedy’s weakness convinced him that he could move nuclear weapons within 90 miles of the U.S. border without consequence.

After the Vienna meetings, Kennedy summoned the legendary New York Times journalist James “Scotty” Reston to a private room at the U.S. ambassador’s residence to share with him “the grim picture” and the “seriousness of the situation.”

“Worst thing in my life,” Kennedy told Reston. “He savaged me.”

Kennedy reflected on the resulting dangers. “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas, we won’t get anywhere with him.”

In Reston’s New York Times report, where he protected the confidentiality of his source, he wrote that the president “was astonished by the rigidity and toughness of the Soviet leader.” He wrote that Kennedy left Vienna pessimistic on issues across the board and that he “definitely got the impression that the German question was going to be a very near thing.”

On that, he turned out to be right.

Fast forward to today, and it would be naive to conclude that Biden’s far shorter meeting with Putin on Wednesday, even following the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the Warsaw Pact military alliance, is without similar perils.

No doubt Biden’s years of experience dealing with Moscow will help, alongside his sober acknowledgement that Putin is a “killer.” Kennedy came to Vienna at 44 as the youngest president ever elected in the United States, and Biden comes to Geneva at age 78 as the oldest.

Yet the dangers rest in the Biden administration’s understandable focus on China as the contest of our times and insufficient realization of the increased challenges Russia poses.

As Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, Russia is not “the weak and dilapidated state that it was in the 1990s. It has reemerged …  with significantly more military, cyber, economic and ideological might than most Americans appreciate.”

Wrote McFaul, “Putin has invested heavily in nuclear modernization, while the United States has not. He has also devoted vast resources to upgrading Russian conventional forces.”

Those forces served to rescue the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, they are poised near the Ukrainian border to do further damage there, and they “pose a significant threat to Europe and even outmatch NATO by some measures, including the number of tanks, cruise missiles and troops on the NATO-Russian border.” At the same time, Russian-backed cyber and influence operations on the United States and other Western democracies have escalated.

White House officials have gone to lengths to limit the time Biden and Putin will meet, and he will not engage Putin in a joint press conference afterward. They have lowered expectations about “deliverables,” stressing that it is a leaders “meeting” and not a “summit.” (One U.S. official has referred to it “more as a cavern,” considering how far relations have sunk.)

President Biden, knowing strength is in numbers, has also been wise to precede the Putin meeting by rallying democratic allies, first in his meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and their signing of a new Atlantic Charter, then with G-7 partners this weekend, and finally with fellow NATO members and then European Union leaders.

In Geneva, Biden has a shot at triggering a strategic stability dialogue that he hopes would produce more predictability in the relationship with Moscow. Officials hope as well for the return to their posts of each country’s ambassador, an easing of restrictions on each other’s diplomatic and consular activities, and the release of one or more Americans being held in Russian prisons.

The most significant test, however, likely won’t be reported until years later by historians studying declassified documents. What will Biden say or not say, do or not do, that will either restrain Putin’s disruptive ambitions or encourage them further?

As Garry Kasparov, Russian chess grandmaster and political activist, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “History has demonstrated time and again that appeasing a dictator only convinces him you’re too weak to oppose him, provoking further aggression.”

Perhaps that fact, though so much else has changed, is the most powerful link from Vienna sixty years ago and Geneva this week.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated President Kennedy’s age when he met Khrushchev in Vienna. He was 44.

                  

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