Biden and Putin in Geneva: beginning of a new era?

This article had been written in anticipation of the Biden-Putin summit but due to logistical issues it could not have been published earlier. 

Magdalena is a second year International Relations student at King’s College London. Thanks to her international experiences she has gained awareness of different countries’ perspectives. She has a wide range of interests including migration, populism, diplomacy and foreign policymaking.

As the bilateral relationship between the US and Russia continues to be severely strained, all eyes will soon be on Geneva where Biden and Putin are set to meet for a face-to-face summit on the 16th of June for the first time since Biden’s inauguration. Ahead of this meeting, two questions loom large, namely what should realistically be expected from the summit and how to judge its degree of success.

Officially, the US aims to ‘restore predictability and stability’ to the bilateral relations and the Kremlin claims to seek to end a vicious circle in its relationship with the US. On both sides, however, there is a palpable lack of enthusiasm and hope for major change in direction or a new era of US-Russian relations that has often marked previous summits featuring promises of a ‘reset’. The circumstances surrounding the long-awaited event are no doubt responsible for this cautious mood. They are, to say the least, unfavourable. Russia’s disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and interference in Western elections all stand as an obstacle to greater understanding. Moreover, Russia’s continuing war against Ukraine has been accentuated by the recent military buildup and it has recently supported Belarus’ hijacking of Ryanair flight between two EU capitals. This belligerent behaviour abroad has also been accompanied by growing domestic repression exemplified by the treatment of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It is not hard to see how these events have all deepened the rift between the US and Russia thus making an improvement in relations difficult to reach. 

In these circumstances, a major breakthrough reminiscent of the Reagan-Gorbachev era seems off the table in Geneva. Indeed, expecting agreements over major issues on the agenda, including the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine or deals pertaining to the cyber domain appear to be largely inappropriate in the current context. However, there are certain issues that could be addressed within the summit. For instance, it seems plausible to expect a reversal in decisions related to cuts in diplomatic staff in both countries. Biden and Putin may also reach a decision on waving patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines. The reestablishment of the strategic stability talks leading to advancements on arms control also seems within reach. Whether or what decisions may be reached remains, at this stage, largely speculation. 

Another issue is how to interpret potential success, as it seems far from straightforward. For Putin, the sole fact of holding the summit with Biden constitutes a form of victory since it portrays Russia as an equal superpower to the US. It is also worth adding that the summit comes following the US decision to lift sanctions on Nord Stream 2 which bolsters Russia’s geopolitical standing. Moreover, if concrete and targeted measures against Russian behaviour are not imposed during the summit, Putin’s sense of success will be reinforced. In fact, this would allow for continued belligerence and domestic repression without tangible consequences. For Biden, on the other hand, achieving success in the Geneva meeting may be trickier. Surely, he can use the summit to showcase a tough position by challenging Putin on various issues, such as cyberattacks and Ukraine, thus attracting a more positive evaluation as compared to Trump’s summit in Helsinki. However, the stakes for Biden in this summit are higher. Indeed, he should seek to reestablish the US standing vis-à-vis Russia to return it to the position of strength. This, as former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker argues, could be achieved not through minor agreements which would, in fact, play in Russia’s favour, but through a more confrontational attitude. In other words, to be a success for Biden, this summit should reject any attempts at appeasing Russia. Instead, the US should use it to project a decisive stance and exercise pressure through sanctions in order to compel change in Russian behaviour and its attitude towards the liberal international order.

However, focusing only on the Geneva summit would be a mistake for the US in its relations with Russia. Whatever the immediate outcome of the meeting, the US should not be complacent and view the summit as an end goal in its own right. Following Geneva, Biden cannot afford to put aside Russia and concentrate solely on China. Russia still matters. As Putin’s actions have shown over the recent months, Russia remains a challenge to the rules-based international order. This is why the US should look beyond the Geneva summit. It should aspire to put in place a long-term strategy to deal with Russia including challenging its excesses and rules violations while pursuing constructive engagement in certain areas. Such a plan of action should seek to promote US cybersecurity, foster NATO’s deterrence and push against Russian aggression abroad and repression at home.

Without any doubt, the upcoming Biden-Putin summit is important. Even though a major breakthrough seems unlikely in the present context, the meeting of the two leaders offers a chance to potentially stop the downward spiral and change the relationship’s dynamic. For now, the outcome is still up in the air and remains to be closely followed.

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