Summary List Placement
President Joe Biden’s upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, is poised to be one of his biggest tests yet as commander-in-chief and will mark his first big face-to-face meeting with a US adversary on the global stage.
Relations between the US and Russia have been deteriorating for years, and Washington has struggled to come up with an effective response to Putin’s increasingly aggressive behavior both at home and abroad. Experts warn that Putin has no intention of using the meeting to improve relations, and question what Biden has to gain via the summit.
“Analysts are struggling to understand what concrete outcomes President Biden will achieve in return for giving Vladimir Putin such an important international spotlight in return for Russia’s increased malign behavior,” Heather Conley, a former senior official for European issues in the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Insider.
“If there aren’t clear deliverables (and both sides have been downplaying outcomes), I think criticism will grow that this high-level meeting ultimately benefited the Kremlin,” Conley, now director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, went on to say.
The US has struggled to influence Russia’s behavior amid historic tensions
The historically contentious dynamic between the US and Russia can in many ways be traced back to Putin’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it’s been exacerbated by a range of other issues in the years since. The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine involving Kremlin-backed rebels, the Syria conflict, Russia’s interference in US elections, the Kremlin’s treatment of critics like Alexei Navalny, the propping up of Belarus’s authoritarian leader, and concerns over hacking and cybersecurity have also driven a wedge between the two major powers.
Biden has sought to walk a fine line between condemning Russia over actions seen as detrimental to US interests, while also underscoring that Washington does not seek conflict with Moscow and wants a more stable, predictable relationship. But not even a year into his presidency, the US and Russia are engaged in an escalating diplomatic tit-for-tat.
The Biden administration’s actions to punish Russia, however, have yet to produce a demonstrable change in behavior from Putin.
The administration, for example, slapped sanctions on Russian officials over the poisoning of Navalny — Putin’s top critic — with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Meanwhile, Navalny has been imprisoned for 2 1/2 years over charges widely seen as politically motivated. And just a week before the Biden-Putin summit, Navalny’s political network was officially outlawed in Russia by being dubbed extremists. It was a clear message to Biden that Putin will continue to crackdown on dissent in extraordinary ways in spite of US pressure.
“Sanctions are essentially meaningless in changing the Kremlin’s calculations but they do challenge the Russian economy,” Conley said.
Biden and US allies aren’t on the same page about Russia
In many ways, former President Donald Trump set a low bar for Biden when it comes to Putin by consistently refusing to criticize the Russian president or take a hardline stance against his nefarious activities.
“Biden can go a long way toward a successful summit merely by avoiding Trump’s mistakes,” Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on Russia and professor on international diplomacy at Columbia University, recently wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations. “The former US president never understood that by not challenging Putin on election meddling and other issues, he made bipartisan pushback from Congress (and new sanctions against Russia) unavoidable. Biden, by contrast, seems to be eager to put forth Western complaints, even as he tries to put relations on a better track.”
After four years of erratic behavior from Trump that eroded ties with allies and damaged America’s credibility, Biden is vying to use his first trip abroad as president to show the world that the US is still a reliable global partner and leader. Biden also wants demonstrate to adversaries like Russia and China that the US and its democratic allies are united against autocracy, and that he will be a lot tougher and more consistent than his predecessor.
In chest-thumping remarks before US service members at RAF Mildenhall in England on Wednesday, Biden warned Putin there would be consequences if Russia threatens the US and its democratic allies. “I’ve been clear: The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way when the Russian government engages in harmful activities,” Biden said.
President Biden: “I’ve been clear, the United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way when the Russian government engages in harmful activities.” pic.twitter.com/OxPgFDzg3z
— The Recount (@therecount) June 9, 2021
Indeed, the president has made the global fight between democracy and autocracy a key theme in his rhetoric on foreign policy, painting an optimistic picture of US allies united against repressive governments. But Biden could face major roadblocks in that regard as he meets with fellow G7 leaders and NATO allies who have made it clear they don’t see eye-to-eye with the president when it comes to challenging Moscow and Beijing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has refused to bend to US pressure regarding the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia into Germany. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his confirmation hearing said the administration would be “determined to do whatever we can to prevent” completion of the project. But the Biden administration in late May ultimately waived sanctions on the company building the pipeline. The company’s CEO, former East German intelligence officer Matthias Warnig, is a close ally of Putin’s.
Biden has also faced criticism from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding his approach to Russia. Erdogan in March blasted Biden for referring to Putin as a “killer,” adding that such remarks “against the president of a country like Russia is truly unacceptable, not something that can be stomached.”
Biden and Erdogan are set to meet in Brussels on the sidelines of the NATO summit on June 14, and it has the potential to produce as many fireworks, if not more, as the summit with Putin.
Turkey has long been considered a key US ally, but Erdogan’s increasingly anti-democratic approach to leadership and a series of controversial foreign policy decisions — including purchasing a Russian missile defense system — have undermined the partnership. Biden’s description of Erdogan as an autocrat and formal recognition of the Armenian genocide have placed further strains on the alliance.
‘The Kremlin’s policy approach toward the West is predicated on instability and unpredictably’
Though Biden faces clear challenges heading into his summit with Putin, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul in a recent Washington Post op-ed said there’s still a “narrow agenda available for bilateral cooperation.”
The former US diplomat said the two leaders can set the stage for a new arms-control agreement after recently extending the New START nuclear nonproliferation treaty, reverse a recent trend of diplomatic expulsions and consulate closures, and agree to cooperate on issues like Iran’s nuclear program, assistance for Syrians, climate change, and the pandemic.
“Biden’s goal should not be ‘improved relations with Russia.’ Instead, Biden and his team should define concrete security, economic and value-related goals they seek to achieve, and then brace for disappointment,” McFaul wrote. “Judging by his actions, Putin does not want a stable, predictable or normal relationship with Washington. He needs the United States as an enemy.”
I was at Biden’s last meeting with Putin (Moscow, March 2011). He delivered tough messages then. I suspect he will do so again in Geneva next week. pic.twitter.com/5iRbeRs1U0
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) June 7, 2021
Conley said if Biden “is able to reach a broad agreement with Putin on a negotiating framework for upcoming US-Russian arms control talks and is able to lift Russian resistance to opening humanitarian corridors in Idlib (Syria), that would be a positive outcome in addition to calling out Russia’s aggressive actions and its domestic repression.”
“Biden will try to compartmentalize areas where cooperation is needed (arms control) and desired (climate change and the Arctic) while contesting the areas where we disagree strongly,” Conley said. “This has been the essence of US policy toward Russia for the past 20 years. The only difference between the crisis in the bilateral relationship then and now is that the crisis is deeper and the structures and rules that used to manage these differences have been eliminated. ”
Along those lines, Conley warned, “We may want stable and predictable relations but the Kremlin’s policy approach toward the West is predicated on instability and unpredictably. This will not change.”