Many see the summit on Wednesday as a critical moment in the attempt to revive the poor relations between the US and Russia.
‘Do you think Vladimir Putin is a killer?” “Uh-huh. I do”, replied President Joe Biden during an interview in March this year. Not, perhaps, the most promising run-up to a meeting in Geneva between the President of the United States and the President of Russia, scheduled this Wednesday. But then, Joe Biden has form in expressing his dislike of the Russian President. “I don’t trust Putin”, he said in the days after the June 2001 Bush-Putin meeting in Slovenia. Again, when the pair met 10 years ago, Biden told Putin bluntly “you don’t have a soul”.
The upcoming face to face meeting comes against the backdrop of rising tensions between Russia and the United States. Since taking office, Joe Biden has imposed sweeping new sanctions against Moscow for alleged transgressions, including interference in the 2020 US elections, a cyber-attack on US government and corporate computer networks, and the attempted assassination last year of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “So what price must he pay?” the interviewer continued. “I’m not gonna announce what I’m doing, but he’s gonna understand that it’s not free”, replied Biden.
The decision whether to meet with Putin divided top Biden foreign policy advisors in Washington and has even drawn criticism from the Republicans, something seen as rather rich, considering the blunders made by former President Trump. The argument that won out among Biden officials is that paying Putin a modicum of attention doesn’t really give much away, and might forestall problems down the line because Putin, in this view, is more likely to act against US interests when he’s ignored by the American President—the “spoilt child syndrome”.
Russia was at the forefront of attention at the two-day G7 (Group of Seven) summit in Cornwall, England which ended yesterday. Today President Biden, accompanied by the First Lady, will meet the Queen at Windsor Castle before flying to Brussels for talks with NATO tomorrow and the EU on Tuesday. Four years ago, these leaders were traumatised by President Trump, who eviscerated NATO, declaring the alliance “obsolete”, calling member countries deadbeats and refusing to explicitly endorse NATO’s bedrock mutual defence principle. Few will forget the image of Trump pushing aside Dusko Markovich, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, to get prime position in the group before adopting his “Mussolini” style posture for the photo-shoot. This had followed the forceful “I’m more important than you” handshake with the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.
The fact that President Biden regards Europe as an ally and NATO as a vital element of western security is a welcome change for the leaders. The get-together is timely as the West’s effectiveness, cohesion and role in the world are all in question like never before in recent times. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the transatlantic rift and the sense of a declining relative power was prompting talk of “Westlessness”. The pandemic has served to accelerate many of these longer-term trends, with both Russian and Chinese elite now convinced that the West is doomed to decline and decadence.
Thanks to the arrival of the Biden administration, many now believe that this is the year that globalisation is back. The era of “America First”, which in effect meant “Trump First” and “America Alone”, is over. The optics of seven mainstream leaders, plus India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa as hugely important guests, meeting together at the picturesque Cornish seaside, was in obvious contrast to the grimaces and awkwardness of the Trump-era G7 events, which usually resembled a dysfunctional family reunion together with a crotchety American uncle.
“America is back”, boomed the European Union last week as its leaders, using Biden’s motto, prepared to set the stage for transatlantic cooperation on the many challenges they face from Russia. Since President Putin rose to power twenty years ago, his undisguised strategy has been to divide the West and NATO, assisted by his recent protégé Donald Trump. The new image of an American President warmly embracing European leaders and developing joint courses of action, will have sent powerful signals to Putin on the eve of the Geneva meeting.
Many see the summit on Wednesday as a critical moment in the attempt to revive the poor relations between the US and Russia. This will be the first face-to-face meeting of the two leaders since Biden took office, taking place amid sanctions and allegations of election interference, human rights violations, differences over the Middle East and many other issues. Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of Russia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, at last week’s St Petersburg International Forum somewhat dramatically compared the US-Russia relations to a “falling knife” and “we need to catch this knife on the 16th till it falls to the floor”. “There are lots of real issues”, he continued, “but also there are really a lot of misunderstandings and we at least need to engage and start communicating much more”.
At the exact moment Dmitriev was being interviewed, Moscow was hinting at ditching dollar-denominated oil contracts if the US were to impose fresh sanctions and Russia’s Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, confirmed that US dollar assets will be cut from its $186 billion National Wealth Fund. Not to be outdone, the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, also declared that the “actions of the West are destroying the world’s security system and force us to take adequate countermeasures”. He then announced that “around 20 military formations and units will be formed in the Western Military District by the end of the year”. As Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, predicted last week: “the Americans must assume that a number of signals from Moscow will be uncomfortable for them”.
So what will be on Wednesday’s agenda? Biden gave a clue in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week. In promising to shore up America’s “democratic alliances” in the face of multiple crises and mounting threats from Moscow and Beijing, he confirmed that “we are standing united to address Russia’s challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine”. To underpin this message, last Monday Biden had a phone chat with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to confirm his continued unwavering support for the country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support of the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Biden will also address Belarus’ hijacking of a Ryanair plane to arrest the opposition blogger Roman Protasevich on 23 May. Putin, in a show of support for his ally Belarusian President Lukashenko, called the international response an “emotional outburst”, but the US suspects Moscow had a hand in the operation.
The issue of cyber-attacks will be firmly on Wednesday’s agenda, following a spate on US targets by Russian hackers. Biden recently pointed the finger at Russia for last year’s cyber-attacks against US information technology firm SolarWinds. More recent attacks, such as that on the Colonial Pipeline, America’s largest fuel pipeline, also had Russian fingerprints on them, as did the major attack on Microsoft by Nobelium, the same Russian group that was said to be behind the attack on SolarWinds.
On human rights, President Biden will reiterate his call for the release of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, poisoned by a military grade nerve agent last August in an attack blamed on Moscow. Since Navalny’s arrest, Moscow’s crackdown on opponents has picked up pace, with any organisation seen as a threat to Putin’s autocratic rule being declared “terrorists”, thus allowing the state to confiscate bank accounts, and imprison staff, supporters and even past donors. By “coincidence”, on Wednesday, Navalny’s organisation was declared “terrorist” by the Kremlin controlled courts, a ruling that will heighten the stakes of the summit for President Biden, who has promised to push back against violations of international norms. In turn, Putin will almost certainly refuse to engage in talks over how he runs his country: “views on our political system can differ”, he told heads of international news agencies last week ahead of the summit.
The one area where there is room for cooperation on Wednesday is the need to tackle climate change. Biden has vowed to work on climate policy with Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases and largest exporter of fossil fuels. At a US-led virtual climate summit last April, Putin said he was “genuinely interested in galvanising international cooperation for effective solutions to climate change”. But the Kremlin has yet to produce a new national plan on cutting carbon, a requirement this year under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Geneva last hosted American and Russian leaders in 1985, when Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev, just six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Gorbachev had recognised how far communism had failed both the economy and social cohesion of his country, which had been memorably dubbed as “Upper Volta with rockets”. Washington still sees Moscow as a declining force that compensates for its shrunken influence by lashing out where it can, causing mischief and sowing discord.
Few expect dramatic results from the summit this week. Biden’s aim is to establish a kind of working rapport with Putin whom, according to a former US official familiar with US’ Russia policy, he sees as someone who is rational, thuggish and not confined by any sense of morality or concern over human rights. Biden views Putin more as an irritant than a rival, a title held by China’s Xi Jinping. On the Russian side, it’s unclear whether Putin decided to meet Biden simply to prove to the Russian public that he still “stands tall on the global stage”, or because he is prepared to do business.
Nevertheless, following his carefully planned five days of meetings in Europe, Biden will arrive in Geneva with something that neither Putin, nor for that matter Xi Jinping, will ever have: a solid network of allies committed to a shared vision of the world—and the resources to carry it out.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.