Putin and Biden reshuffle the deck

Jun 22, 2021

The 16 June Geneva Summit had positive outcomes. In a rare moment of joint statesmanship, Presidents Biden and Putin reshuffled the deck of Russia-US relations. Where the new card game may go is uncertain: but Geneva offers present hope for a safer and more rational relationship between the world’s strongest nuclear weapon powers.

Ironically, what Putin and Trump could not achieve in Helsinki in 2018, Putin and Biden achieved in Geneva. Putin was the prime mover; but he could not have done so without Biden’s supportive knowledge that the East-West game had to change.

Each was constrained – Biden especially so – by the weight of mutual anger and mistrust that had grown up since the American-instigated anti-Russian coup in Ukraine in 2013/14. The last eight years saw NATO pressure on Russia’s Western borders and flagrant attempts at regime subversion even in Russia itself.

In Geneva, symbolically, the leaders sat stiffly the regulation COVID distance apart. There was basic cordiality, but no insincere bonhomie, no false new dawns. Yet much was achieved.

The biggest challenge for the two men lay in the press conferences, trying to manage the media’s appetite for embarrassment and failure. Here was where Putin and Trump had come so disastrously unstuck in Helsinki in 2018: Trump never escaped the label of inept traitor hung on him there by angry Western media. Biden, a shrewd political dealmaker, was determined to avoid this trap and Putin was keen to help him.

Sensibly, they had agreed on separate post-conference press conferences. Putin went first, parrying hostile Western questions on human rights, Navalny and Ukraine with his customary calm factual rebuttals.

Biden skillfully managed his press conference, working through a list of approved questioners in a poised and measured way until smoothly donning his trademark Rayban aviator glasses, signalling the end. As he left, some disappointed press started shouting at him, hungry for final one-liners. They did not succeed.

Biden really understood what this summit was about. ‘This is not about trust: this is about self-interest, and verification of self-interest’. The Western media, conditioned to permanent hostility, appeared not to understand.

We knew days beforehand that the Geneva summit would be well choreographed, with every safeguard against upsurges of either excessive warmth or confrontation. Both sides had been massaging expectations: this summit had to succeed, but not too well.

Russia professed public uncertainty whether Putin wished to meet Biden at all, given continuing US hostile actions. Biden played a crafty hand, obscuring that US was the demandeur for this meeting. The prior script from both sides was that the success of this summit would be in the fact of it: do not look for dramatic breakthroughs.

In the event, both leaders methodically worked through their agenda and found a sufficient measure of agreement on principle, the details being left for officials to flesh out in coming days, weeks or months.

The most concrete outcomes: agreement to resume more normal diplomatic relations, with the return of ambassadors to posts within days (already happening), and agreement to begin negotiations for restored normal staffing of embassies and consulates in both nations.

Sanctions were discussed but inconclusively. A massive structure of US anti-Russia sanctions is now locked into US congressional laws and regulations. Russia has adjusted to this reality.

Each side stated firmly their sharply contrasting positions on human rights and national sovereignty. Putin denounced Western efforts at regime change in Russia under the guise of support for human rights, and dismissed the (unnamed) Navalny as an unimportant tool of the West. Navalny had chosen to defy Russian parole laws and return by his choice to face certain imprisonment. No tears need be shed for him. There was agreement in principle to start negotiations for prisoner exchanges. Clearly, Moscow would like Navalny to be on that list.

Importantly, a door has now been opened to serious regular bilateral official dialogues on strategic stability, on conventional military threat reduction, and on state cooperation against cybersecurity crime. In his media conference Putin made the telling point that most non-governmental interference in other countries’ cybersecurity originates in the US.  Russia-origin hacking is not even in the first five countries of origin.

We can expect greater calmness on questions of Russia-NATO conventional forces’ confrontation in the Baltic, along the European land frontier, and in the Black Sea. NATO’s Stoltenberg remained publicly defiant even after the summit. But the announced UK intention to work now for a Putin-Johnson meeting is indicative of a better climate.  Merkel and her most likely successor as German Chancellor, and Macron, already understand this well. The Baltic pipeline completion is the proof.

Biden’s press conference saw him explaining to Western media that Russia is different from the West: that it has always been a major international power when the people are united behind a powerful central government (i.e., though he did not use the word, an autocracy). This is what Putin and Lavrov have tried to explain to the West for years: but to hear such ideas from an American President would have enraged some of his audience.

Interestingly, Biden reported that he had advocated to Putin that with Russia’s long vulnerable frontier with China, Russia needed to strive for closer relations with the West. Putin would have replied that Russia’s relations with China are excellent and Russia is not for turning.  But for Biden, to report this demarche was a useful response to western conservatives and Russophobes.

There was no visible progress on Ukraine which remains the sharpest potential flashpoint of East-West war. Biden noncommittally agreed ‘to pursue diplomacy relating to the Minsk Agreement’. Putin in his press conference was firm that the only path to a solution of the conflict in Ukraine will be to stick to the Minsk Accords. He was scathing on Kiev’s attempts to rewrite these Accords.

Two authoritative commentaries are worth noting here:

US Ambassador Sullivan tweeted:

After an important summit, I look forward to returning to Moscow soon to lead the strong [US Embassy] team as we implement President Biden’s policy directives outlined in Geneva, including strategic stability, human rights, and a stable & predictable relationship with Russia.

Fyodor Lukhanov, editor-in-chief of ‘Russia in Global Affairs’, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club, commented that the Biden-Putin meeting shows Russia-US relations are set for a return to the   Cold War-era. Strangely, that might be an improvement  on the past few years’.

Lyukanov said the summit had been a total, if modest, success. It achieved its goals of ‘cooling tensions, after years of circus antics’. The summit served its purpose of getting Moscow and Washington to sit down and do business. Both leaders had signed up to a well-polished joint statement that denounced nuclear war and signaled their determination to formulate new principles underpinning strategic stability and cybersecurity. Judging by what the presidents said, they covered a lot of ground in the brief yet rather substantive meeting. Now, they may well end up striking a deal or two – like the spy swaps in the good old days of the Soviet Union.

In general, continued Lukhanov, the talks in Geneva resembled classic summit meetings. The exchanges were intensive and serious, with an understanding of real constraints, and without the ideological prejudice that we have become used to over the last couple of decades.

So in summary, this was a summit short of concrete outcomes, but long on the atmospherics of hope. Biden retained dignity and authority. He showed the world – including China – that he can surmount the years of American elites’ hatred for Russia, and establish a civil dialogue with the Russian President.

Thus it was a win-win summit, thanks to the statesmanship and mutual support by the two leaders. Whether they can take their countries’ elites forward with them, to lock in real progress towards East-West detente, will – as Biden said – become clear in the months ahead.

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