It was only two years ago that then-US President Donald Trump went eyeball to eyeball with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. A divided America was briefly united in shock as Trump appeared to believe Putin rather than his own intelligence agencies regarding Russian interference in American elections. One could imagine Putin retracting his claws and purring.
Fast forward to last week and Putin was in Geneva sitting opposite a president who had labeled him a “killer” as recently as March. Back in 2011, Joe Biden had told Putin this to his face, as well as telling him that he “doesn’t have a soul.” Putin was furious and withdrew Russia’s ambassador to the US.
The Trump era was a blip. Putin enjoyed an easy ride from the US, whether in Syria or elsewhere. Trump even once handed classified documents to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office.
Trump was haunted from the first day of his presidency to the last by questions over his relationship with Russia — a situation not helped by his decision to have a one-on-one with Putin with no note-takers.
For Putin, Biden is a more familiar foe; one he has known for many years and who represents a more traditional, antagonistic American attitude to Russia. Putin bears strong animus toward the US, originating in what he views as the catastrophe of losing the Cold War. He is angered by numerous issues, not least what he sees as US interference in Ukraine and Belarus and the eastward expansion of NATO.
Putin relishes any opportunity to stand up to a superpower that, in his world, fails to respect Russian interests. He will also be mindful of playing to his base with legislative elections coming this year. Being given the pulpit at a summit with an American president was no minor victory for him.
This gave rise to the most serious criticism directed at Biden: That he had given Putin a prize in return for nothing. The summit was Biden’s idea and Putin had not made any major moves that warranted a positive change in relations. That said, it was some cheek for Trump to chide Biden for giving a “very big stage to Russia.”
Biden emphasized that it was “important to meet in person.” In his post-meeting press conference, Biden was at pains to stress the value of four hours of talks, more than half of which was limited just to the presidents and the two foreign ministers. Both leaders referred to the very personal exchanges. Putin was notably respectful, several times praising his counterpart as “balanced,” “pragmatic,” and “experienced.”
The Russian leader did not appear to play some of his usual games, such as turning up late — he kept Barack Obama waiting for 40 minutes in 2012. And his distaste for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany led him to bring his pet black Labrador to a meeting, aware that Merkel loathes dogs.
If the personal chemistry between Biden and Putin moved from cold to tepid, that was welcome. But what about the other issues? The two agreed to return ambassadors and establish strategic dialogue in a bunch of key areas.
Given that the two powers possess most of the world’s nuclear weapons, disarmament was arguably the most important file. One of Biden’s first actions as president that Putin welcomed was to agree to a five-year extension of the New START treaty that caps the number of nuclear warheads each side maintains. Much work remains to be done on this issue.
Given that the state of US-Russian relations had a touch of Siberian frost, some thawing in ties was a reasonable aim.
Cybersecurity was another area of contention. The US and its allies are infuriated by Russia’s use of misinformation and cyberattacks to disrupt their political systems. This has been one of the most successful Russian programs, which is surprising given that Putin has historically been suspicious of the internet. These attacks included hacking the German Bundestag and the French television station TV5.
Biden provided a list of critical areas that should be off limits to cyberattacks, while making clear that the US would respond in kind if any such attacks took place.
Biden has promised that Russia will pay for trying to undermine the 2020 US presidential election.
Moscow has increasingly interfered in Western democratic processes, not least through social media attacks thanks to its army of bots and trolls. It famously did this during the UK’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election, but has also backed far-right, populist figures such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria and Marine Le Pen in France. Some political forces have even received Russian cash. Putin looks to do anything to weaken the Western alliance.
Biden has made it his mission to strengthen America’s alliance with democratic nations — a process he kickstarted in the run up to Geneva at the G7 and NATO summits. Part of the ambition will be to row back Russia and China’s increasing influence on the world stage. Biden also raised human rights with Putin. The media particularly focused questions to Putin on the fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who remains in jail. Putin gave nothing away, although Biden warned that the consequences would be “devastating for Russia” if Navalny were to die in prison.
However, on the most sensitive issue of recent years, Ukraine, little was said in public and no signs of progress were visible. Russia has been amassing military forces on its border with Ukraine and still gives its backing to separatists in the Donbas region. On Syria, only time will tell if Russia will agree to the renewal of the cross-border mechanism that is so vital to getting humanitarian aid to those in need in opposition areas in the north.
This may not have been one of the great historic summits, such as the one in 1985 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that paved the way to the ending of the Cold War, but it still could prove to be a mini-turning point. Given that the state of US-Russian relations had a touch of Siberian frost, some thawing in ties was a reasonable aim. Too many major issues needed addressing to be left to face a 21st century cold war.
Will it work out? Putin could do with a relaxation of US sanctions, while Biden has a shopping list of areas where Russia could alter its behavior. Neither leader appears to have made any great or even minor concessions, but at least the door has been left ajar for such a possibility.
- Chris DoyleS