It’s not enough simply to tell Putin that there are certain lines he should not cross. It’s also necessary to outline the consequences he will face if he crosses those lines and be prepared to follow through on those consequences if necessary.
Biden, to his credit, got the first part right. Unfortunately, by his own account, he didn’t give Putin a clear idea of how the United States would respond to Russian cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure.
Instead of outlining clear repercussions, Biden recounted speaking vaguely of America’s “significant cybercapability” and informing Putin that America would respond “in the cyber way.” He also recalled lecturing the Russian strongman in the style of a parent chiding a youngster about remembering the Golden Rule.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?’” Biden told the press, declaring with an air of finality that Putin “said it would matter.”
That approach might work when a toddler is refusing to share, but it’s hopelessly naive to think it would work on one of the most ruthless practitioners of realpolitik in the world. One can easily imagine Putin rolling his eyes while Biden patted himself on the back.
Was the U.S. president threatening a ransomware attack on Russian oil assets? Possibly, but the fact that he wouldn’t just come right out and say it clearly weakens its effectiveness as a deterrent. And in any event, Putin has already made the calculated risk that America might retaliate, so Biden’s threat is nothing he hasn’t already considered.