It couldn’t be easy to call someone a soulless killer and then sit down with him for a four-hour chat. But that’s exactly what President Joe Biden did when he met President Putin in an 18th century lakeside villa in Geneva, for their first summit meeting.
Background to Biden-Putin Summit
First, the background.
US-Russia relations have been in a downward spiral in recent times. Allegations of Russian meddling in US elections, and US anger over Russian annexation of Crimea, military presence in eastern Ukraine, stifling of human rights and ransomware attacks on US assets have combined to take these relations to a new low. Consulates have been shut down in tit-for-tat reprisals and Ambassadors recalled.
It didn’t help that while the US establishment, and US allies, bristled in response to Russia’s actions, President Trump seemed to be strangely smitten with Putin, who played successfully on these differences. The 2018 Helsinki summit saw these contradictions reach farcical proportions when Trump publicly sided with Putin against his own intelligence agencies, creating a perfect storm.
Joe Biden did not come to power promising a reset of relations with Russia; the adversarial stance was expected to continue, only with more consistency. It was expected that Biden’s long foreign policy experience and half a century of dealing with Russia would come to bear on the crucial relationship and introduce some firm management of a traditional adversary.
Expectations From the First Meeting
A summit meeting was inevitable – to demonstrate firm intent, address crucial issues and put the well-known antipathy between the two leaders in a box.
Expectations from the summit were kept low. This would not be a summit from the Cold War years, imbued with mystery and romance, with the world on edge waiting for a major breakthrough or dramatic handshake or a walk in the woods; the major talking point would not be nuclear-tipped missiles on hair-trigger alert but invidious computer malware.
If the Geneva summit could pass off cordially it would help reduce tensions and restore a working relationship. By just taking place it would mark the return of sober diplomacy and erase the memory of the somersaulting unpredictability of the Trump years.
The fact that the two did not have a joint press interaction obviated a public display of differences and permitted each one to stick to their positions while giving a positive spin to the meeting. Possible areas of cooperation and areas of differences were set out, along with an intent to work out rules of the road. As evidence of kick-starting a working relationship, the two ambassadors are returning to their posts.
Extended ‘New START Treaty’ Between US and Russia
Some specifics discussed came through in the press interactions.
Biden listed out 16 areas of critical infrastructure that should not be targeted by ransomware and other means. At the same time, while not framing it as a threat, he made it clear that the US could retaliate against critical Russian assets.
Not surprisingly, Putin denied any responsibility. Ransomware attacks are not easily attributable and that is part of the problem. An expert group is expected to work out what is off-limits and follow up on specific cases. Another group will work on arms control issues and initiate a “strategic stability dialogue.”
The two sides have already extended the New Start Treaty; this dialogue is expected to make improvements as well as address new and sophisticated weaponry.
Of Human Rights Violations and Suppression of Dissent
Biden expectedly took up the issue of human rights and stifling of dissent within Russia, specifically the case of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and two “wrongly imprisoned” Americans, framing this issue in terms of projection of fundamental American values. Putin’s staunch response was along expected lines; without even mentioning Navalny by name, he made it clear that what happens within Russian polity was his business and human rights activists were just American agents. He countered the issue by raising instances of American excesses and human rights abuses. It is worth noting that Biden stated that consequences of Navalny dying in prison would be “devastating for Russia.”
The conversation seems to have gone better in other areas, with hints of possible cooperation between the US and Russia to counter terrorism in Afghanistan, provide humanitarian assistance in Syria and prevent a nuclear Iran.
The Arctic, where both countries are coastal states, and which is assuming increasing strategic significance as the ice cap melts, was discussed as an area for cooperation and not conflict. Differences persist – again no surprises – on Ukraine and Belarus.
What Next for US-Russia Relations?
Both sides can go home projecting a positive outcome.
President Biden was evidently comfortable on familiar foreign policy turf, rallying European and NATO allies and demonstrating America’s intent to be back as a leader of the democratic world against authoritarianism. He has put forward engagement where possible, deterrence where necessary, and placed a non-negotiable label on democratic values. The Russia relationship has been taken out of domestic political debate and put back in the foreign policy box and.
President Putin too will spin the Summit as a success: he enjoyed the centre-stage at Geneva and the projection of Russia as a great power, an equal of the US. He came through as pragmatic and constructive, willing to do business, and yet not seeming to make any concessions. He offered no new warmth or friendship, just pragmatic self-interest.
A working relationship with the US on these terms does not harm Russia; rather it brings it back into the great power game and gives it breathing space to handle other relationships, internal issues, and a troubled economy. The test of course will be how stable and predictable the working relationship actually becomes. Will America perceive a change in Russian behaviour? If not, will Biden follow up his words with action? Will cooperation in some areas counter negative perceptions in others?
The jury is out and as Joe Biden said, “the next three to six months will be crucial” in measuring progress.