What to Expect From the Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva

Amy Mackinnon | 13 June 2021
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The two leaders have much to discuss. Just don’t hold your breath for a breakthrough.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden will meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for the first time as president in Geneva, Switzerland. Although no breakthroughs are expected, experts hope the summit can help establish some boundaries in the tense relationship between the world’s biggest nuclear powers. 

Tensions between Moscow and Washington have escalated precipitously in recent years over cyber attacks, the war in Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Russia’s use of the lethal nerve agent Novichok to try and take out its foes, and disinformation and election interference. Diplomatic ties have frayed through a series of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, and earlier this year, both countries recalled their ambassadors for consultations. 

Some have criticized the decision to hold a meeting with the Russian leader without conditions. “Instead of treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people, we’re giving him his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline and legitimizing his actions with a summit. This is weak,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement last month. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back. “We may have forgotten over the last couple of years, but this is how diplomacy works,” she said at a press briefing in May. “It’s actually important to meet with leaders when we have a range of disagreements—as we do with Russian leaders.”

So, if tensions are so bad, why are they even meeting, and what can we expect from the summit?

What’s the goal of the summit?

Make sure to have the phrase “stable and predictable relationship” on your summit bingo card. These are the watchwords of the Biden administration when it comes to its approach to Russia, but even this might be a reach. Just don’t call it a reset.

“Whether we can have a stable environment, I don’t think so,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “I believe that the most that can be done as a result of the Geneva summit is the clarification for both sides of where their real red lines lie,” he said, speaking at a press briefing on Thursday.

Although Moscow and Washington regard each other with deep suspicion, both sides grudgingly recognize the need to have a working relationship to avert disaster. “Russia still has, together with the United States, the largest nuclear arsenals on Earth. Russia is still a permanent member of the security council at the U.N. That means whether we like it or not, we have to work with Russia on certain core challenges that are out there in the world,” said Biden’s top Russia hand, Eric Green, at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security last week. 

What’s on the agenda?

Green said the topics for discussion will “cover the waterfront,” including arms control, cyber, diplomatic restrictions; imprisoned Americans; Iran; North Korea; Syria; Afghanistan; the Arctic; and climate change. Biden is also expected to raise the recent hijacking of a Ryanair flight by Belarus and to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

An immediate priority will be rebuilding diplomatic ties between the two countries. In retaliation over the latest round of sanctions over election interference, Russia banned its citizens from working for U.S. diplomatic missions last month. The move, which was later put on pause, forced the embassy in Moscow to dramatically reduce consular services to U.S. citizens and stop processing visas for Russians. 

“They need to work out at least a minimum of reestablishment of diplomatic ties so that the U.S. can get on with doing the business that it needs to do in Russia and the same for the Russians here,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University. 

One area where both parties recognize they have no choice but to work together is on strategic stability and arms control, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. 

“U.S and Russian interests in strategic weaponry beyond a general desire to avert a nuclear war are increasingly asymmetric,” said James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a press briefing on Thursday. Although the United States is concerned about Russia’s new high-tech weapons, such as nuclear powered torpedoes and cruise missiles, Russia is more concerned with U.S. conventional weapons, such as missile defense and high precision missiles, Acton explained. This makes tit-for-tat bargaining increasingly difficult.

Both Moscow and Washington have said they are keen to discuss the cyber realm. The United States has blamed Russian intelligence agencies for a recent series of hacks on U.S. government agencies, but the Kremlin is quietly fearful of the United States’ cyber capabilities. 

“Where cyber can gain traction is under the strategic stability umbrella,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security, to prevent misunderstandings over cyber-espionage or hacking from escalating to the point of armed or nuclear conflict. 

“These lower-level issues and incidents could very rapidly escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. So we want to be able to have some rules of the road, some understanding in these different domains,” Kendall-Taylor said, who briefly served as Biden’s top Russia hand at the National Security Council.

What should we watch for?

The meeting is likely to be both long and tense. Putin is known to come well prepared and is prone to lecturing his counterparts. “He dominates the room. Not all leaders do that. Sometimes they defer to experts. Putin doesn’t defer to anybody,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. Putin is also likely to raise the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. “There’s no doubt in my mind they’re going to talk about Jan. 6,” McFaul said in a call with journalists. In recent weeks, both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have sought to characterize the insurgents as protesters with legitimate political grievances. This comes as Russia has pursued a punishing domestic crackdown on opposition groups and journalists in recent months. 

Watch the body language of the two leaders as they emerge from their meeting. Russia experts say they’re waiting to see if the two leaders will hold a joint press conference at the end of the summit, although CNN reported on Friday this is unlikely, and whether they issue any joint statements on diplomatic ties and arms control. “You might see a statement on an agreement to enter into strategic stability talks,” Stent said.

Families of Americans imprisoned in Russia are also hopeful a deal can be struck to have them returned to the United States. Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, both former U.S. Marines, have separately received lengthy prison sentences on charges the United States regards as bogus. 

How does this meeting fit into the Bien administration’s approach to Russia?

Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has tried to walk a fine line of not pursuing a reset with Moscow while also seeking to avoid escalating an already fraught relationship. 

One of Biden’s first actions as president was to order a review of four areas of nefarious activity allegedly perpetrated by the Russian government: the Solar Winds hack; the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny; election interference in 2016, 2018, and 2020; and reports that Moscow’s intelligence operatives paid bounties to militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. troops. Once the review was complete, Washington announced a fresh batch of sanctions and diplomatic expulsions in April over Russia’s effort to meddle in the 2020 presidential race.

Although the Biden administration has been clear it sees competition with China as its greatest long-term strategic challenge, it is Russia that has presented the most immediate foreign-policy headaches in the early days of the administration.

“I think Biden’s Russia policy looks a little naive right now,” said Melinda Haring, a deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, speaking at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest on Thursday. “They seem to think they can put Russia in a little box and put a little bow on it, and Russia’s going to behave over the next four years, and we can just ignore it.”

With an economy smaller than that of the state of New York, Russia is often characterized as a declining power in comparison to the United States or China. 

“I do think we underestimate Russian power. This notion that Russia is a declining power, there’s no empirical support for that,” McFaul said. 

“Whatever card [Putin] has, he’s willing to use them in a much more aggressive way, I would argue, than any other leader in the world,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.  

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.