GENEVA – As U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in their highly anticipated summit Wednesday in Geneva, what does success look like for a meeting that both sides have downplayed from the start?
Both sides have highlighted opportunities for cooperation but neither expected much improvement in tense relations between Moscow and Washington. The meeting was set up to be more of an airing of grievances than a platform to reach significant agreements.
“We’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting,” said a senior administration official, briefing VOA and other reporters on board Air Force One during Biden’s flight to Switzerland.
The official said Biden’s goals include seeking areas where the United States and Russia can work together while clearly stating U.S. vital national interests and making it clear that “Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response.” He also aims to lay out his “vision for American values and our national priorities.”
“The meeting has a low bar,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas Program at Chatham House. It isn’t aiming for a “reset” of the relationship, Vinjamuri added, something that many American presidents prior to Biden have attempted.
Vinjamuri added that if, following the summit, Biden can tell the American people that he has drawn red lines on interference in U.S. democracy, has called out Putin on cyberattacks, and underscored NATO’s commitment to deterring Russia’s aggression, the Biden administration will call that success.
On the other hand, Putin will likely brand the summit as a success just by playing the role of the statesman on the world’s largest stage, said Cyrus Newlin, associate fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russian state media have highlighted the fact that Biden is meeting Putin before Chinese President Xi Jinping or any other U.S. adversary.
Whether or not the summit comes out as a net positive for Biden can only be determined in the ensuing months — will Biden communicate his red lines and will Putin respect them, Newlin said.
“Does Russia tone down its cyberattacks? Does Russia cease its provocations in the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s border?” Newlin asked. “The failure of the U.S. to secure these basic changes in Russian behavior would illustrate that summits do have costs.”
Republicans have slammed Biden for rewarding Putin with a meeting without pre-conditions, a criticism rejected by the White House.
Earlier this month Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia has maintained a massive military presence near his country’s borders, having withdrawn only a fraction of the 100,000 troops deployed in April. The buildup is a concern for the West and would be brought up by Biden in his discussion with Putin, the senior administration official said.
Ukraine’s ascension into NATO will be another key red line — a difficult problem to manage according to Timothy Frye, Columbia University Professor of Post-Soviet Politics and Author of “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.”
“Putin will insist on no NATO membership for Ukraine, while the U.S. will insist on Ukraine’s right to choose its foreign policy,” Frye said.
Following Biden’s summit with NATO leaders Monday, Zelenskiy tweeted that NATO agreed that his country could join the alliance, causing some analysts to speculate that Putin might cancel his Wednesday summit with Biden.
Commend @NATO partners’ understanding of all the risks and challenges we face. NATO leaders confirmed that 🇺🇦 will become a member of the Alliance & the #MAP is an integral part of the membership process. 🇺🇦 deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) June 14, 2021
Asked during his press conference at the end of his summit whether Ukraine should join NATO, Biden said, “It depends on whether they meet the criteria.”
“The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. They still have to meet other criteria. School’s out on that question, it remains to be seen,” Biden said.
But Biden defended Ukraine against Russia. “We will do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression,” he said.
Strategic stability, diplomatic exchange, cyberattacks
The Biden administration has stated that their goal is to achieve a stable and predictable relationship with Moscow.
“In Biden-speak, a stable and predictable relationship does not mean even a limited partnership, but is confined to managing a largely adversarial relationship,” Columbia University’s Frye said.
Other than strategic stability, Frye added that for the U.S., a modestly successful summit would also include a commitment to further talks on cyberwarfare and nuclear weapons. It would also include some agreement on the return of ambassadors and increased diplomatic staffing in both countries.
U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov returned to their respective home countries earlier this year amid worsening U.S.-Russia relations. Both are in Geneva and participated in the expanded part of the summit.
In April, Biden expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions on companies linked to the hacking of the SolarWinds information technology company. The hack spread to SolarWinds’ clients — U.S. companies and government agencies.
In May, two U.S. businesses involved in key goods — fuel and meat — were targeted in cyberattacks believed to have originated in Russia. Both companies paid millions of dollars in ransom to restore their business operations, although U.S. law enforcement officials have recovered most of the money Colonial Pipeline paid.
Putin has denied U.S. accusations of election meddling, cyberattacks, human rights abuses and elimination of political opposition including through nerve agent poisoning. Moscow claims to be a victim of Western anti-Russian sentiment.
Prior to his meeting with Putin, Biden attended the G-7, NATO and EU summits, seeking to boost relations with allies and consult with them about the U.S.-Russia talks.
As in the prior meetings, China is a key driver in the U.S.-Russia talks. “The Biden administration wants to hold firm on Russia but engage just enough to dampen any unity between Russia and China,” Chatham House’s Vinjamuri said.
Moscow and Beijing have forged closer ties in recent years, including deeper military ties. Both have broadly similar foreign policy and expansionist ambitions, with aligning interests to reject what they see as U.S. and European efforts to impose a “liberal” character on the rules-based international order.