The Biden-Putin Summit: Nothing to Reset but Expectations
President Joe Biden is not known for being “soft” on Russia. In 2011, he said that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t have a soul. Recently, he agreed with a reporter’s characterization of Putin as a “killer.” Putin, for his part, quipped in response, “it takes one to know one,” and sardonically wished Biden “good health.” Throughout the Trump years, Biden decried the former president’s downplaying of threats from Moscow, his courting of Russian interference in U.S. democracy, and his personal warmth toward Putin.
Despite the obvious personal animosity between the two leaders, official Kremlin readouts of Biden and Putin’s discussions this year have underscored the “open and businesslike” tone of the conversations. In addition, Putin agreed with Biden in January to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by five years, and joined the U.S.-led virtual climate summit in April. Now as Biden plans a summit with Putin on June 16 in Geneva, the president says he wants to establish a more “stable and predictable relationship” with Moscow. Is that even possible?
Even at this late date, it is far from certain that the summit will take place. More Russian cyber intrusions, a new crisis around Ukraine or Belarus, or the Kremlin’s egregious treatment of political prisoners like Alexei Navalny might still derail the meeting, which comes at the tail end of a long European trip for Biden where he’ll meet with G-7, NATO, and E.U. leaders. Some critics allege Biden is “rewarding” Putin with a summit. But if the U.S.-Russian summit does take place, Biden’s goal should indeed be to seek to stabilize a relationship at risk of dangerous escalation. The summit can be the first step in establishing a strategic stability dialogue on nuclear, cyber, and other threats, direct military-to-military crisis management channels, and restored on-the-ground embassy and consular capacities. Far from a reward to Putin for Russia’s destabilizing behavior, this kind of diplomacy will actually help to contain and deter future aggression.
On the sharp end of his Russia policy, Biden has “imposed meaningful consequences for behaviors that violate U.S. sovereignty, including interference in our democratic elections,” as he recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. His goal is to deter future malign actions from Moscow. Among a set of “seen and unseen” measures announced by his administration in April was an executive order creating authorities for significant future sanctions, including the ability to freeze property belonging to, or held on behalf of, those doing the Kremlin’s dirty work. This step should give plenty of reassurance to those on Capitol Hill long concerned about the Trump administration’s relative reluctance to go after Russian oligarchs’ assets in the United States. U.S. officials have also delivered tough messages privately, including on Russia’s recent troop buildup in Ukraine, and on cyber security issues.
At the same time, Biden has called for de-escalation, thoughtful dialogue, and diplomacy. In public remarks in April, Biden described his bottom line this way: “Where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. Where Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond. And we’ll always stand in defense of our country, our institutions, our people, and our allies.” U.S. officials have talked about the need for “guardrails” on Russia’s troubling behavior, and the deterrent message has been clear.
But will Moscow believe it has a stake in the stability and predictability Washington seeks? That is hardly guaranteed. The open question for Geneva is whether the two leaders can identify sufficient common ground on a core set of bilateral and global security issues, such as nuclear weapons, regional conflicts, and the Arctic, to shift the relationship in a more constructive direction.
Biden’s team recognizes that Russia matters for U.S. national interests, starting with strategic stability — lowering incentives for nuclear arms races or escalation in case of a crisis — which U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, agreed was a top priority in their own Geneva meeting. Between them, Russia and the United States possess over 90 percent of the world’s existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, with hundreds of missiles aimed at American and Russian cities, a macabre legacy of the Cold War. That was why Biden called Putin within a week after his inauguration to express his commitment to extend the New START agreement by the maximum five years.
Moscow, too, views the overarching framework for strategic stability provided by New START as vital for its national security. Yet it has been actively developing, testing, and deploying new weapons systems which upset that balance, and has been intentionally violating other key agreements such as the now fully defunct 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, and the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement. As a result of Russian violations, the United States pulled out of Open Skies last year, and the Biden administration recently confirmed it will not rejoin the agreement. So what is there to talk about?
One explanation for Russia’s provocative behavior on arms control and strategic stability issues is that the Kremlin fears U.S. capabilities and seeks to pressure Washington by accelerating the collapse of previously existing treaty infrastructure. In any future rounds of strategic stability discussions, the Russians want an agenda that addresses their concerns about missile defenses, space-based weapons systems, conventional weapons with strategic implications, as well as hypersonic weapons and cyber capabilities. In short, Washington can assume that the areas where Moscow has pushed the envelope in recent years will be the starting point for any future negotiation. But it takes two to negotiate, and Biden’s team should take full advantage of any future dialogue to pursue guardrails on Russia’s destabilizing behavior.
Russia and the West are at loggerheads over European security as well as Russia’s increasingly assertive posture worldwide. In his speech at the World War II Victory Day parade on May 9, Putin decried the revival of “Nazi ideologies,” and warned adversaries against crossing an unspecified “red line” in his annual State of the Nation address in April, hinting at unprecedented consequences. This language seems meant to warn Washington that Moscow will act decisively or even preemptively against what it sees as threats, such as increased U.S. engagement along Russia’s borders, whether that is via expanded military cooperation with partners like Georgia and Ukraine, or U.S.-funded democracy promotion programs in former Soviet states, which Putin considers thinly veiled “regime change” operations.
Russia’s March-April “readiness exercises” involving over 100,000 troops and masses of military hardware on the Russian-Ukrainian border were a further signal to Ukraine and its NATO partners that Russia will use force to block any outcome it opposes, including Kyiv’s recent push for a NATO membership action plan. Far from seeking de-escalation, Russia appears bent on pursuing its goal of dominating or at least neutralizing Ukraine by backing the relentless war in the Donbas and through its ongoing illegal occupation of Crimea.
Biden will surely tell Putin that any escalation in Ukraine is unacceptable, and will likely also raise the latest crisis in Belarus, where dictator Alexander Lukashenko forced down a civilian airliner transiting Belarusian airspace in order to detain a dissident journalist who was on board. The journalist, Roman Protasevich, is now jailed in Belarus, along with hundreds of his fellow citizens who were beaten and arrested amid mass protests following Lukashenko’s fraudulent “reelection” in August last year. Lukashenko now finds himself totally dependent on Russian support, and previous U.S. efforts to engage Minsk have ground to a halt.
But Belarus should be on the summit agenda because later this year, the “Zapad” (West) military exercise will involve massed Russian and Belarusian troops simulating war with NATO countries, a potential flashpoint for escalating military tensions. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, regular military-to-military dialogue has been suspended between U.S. and Russian forces. A reasonable minimum goal for Geneva would be for the two leaders to instruct their defense officials to reestablish direct communications aimed at preventing future miscalculation and escalation.
Putin and Biden may also discuss the U.S. commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan by September. Russia has sometimes quietly supported the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan because it has meant that U.S. troops were principally responsible for containing extremist forces that might otherwise have migrated northward into former Soviet Central Asia, or even into Russia itself. At the same time, Moscow has invested in relationships with Taliban commanders, whom it views as capable of challenging or even toppling the U.S.-backed Kabul government, and thus as the most likely arbiters of the country’s future. The U.S. intelligence community did not ultimately confirm reports that the Russians paid bounties for Taliban attacks on U.S. forces, but Russia could seek to leverage its influence with the Taliban to prevent a northward flow of jihadis in the wake of a U.S. pullout. Although Putin may be inclined to oppose any protracted U.S. presence in the region, there could also be common ground on the need to ensure ongoing counter-terrorism capabilities in partnership with neighboring Central Asian states.
The upsurge in fighting between Israel and Hamas in May underscored the continuing volatility of the situation in the Middle East. Israel maintains a regular channel with Russia, since it depends on Russian acquiescence to operate against Iranian targets in Syria. While this has not yet put Russia in the mediator’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Moscow does play a pivotal role in Washington’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Moscow is not eager to see Tehran acquire a nuclear weapon and might still be pressured to help blunt Iran’s aggressive and destabilizing actions in the region. Regarding the world’s other major nuclear proliferator, North Korea, Biden should at least call on Putin to rein in Russian companies that have been repeatedly caught helping Pyongyang evade U.N. sanctions.
Biden is likely to bring what Washington sees as pressing transnational priorities to the summit table, including climate change in the rapidly warming and melting Arctic. Despite its dependency on fossil fuel exports, Moscow has real concerns about Arctic climate change, suggesting that Russia’s current two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council could be an opportunity to identify common ground on both mitigation and adaptation strategies. The broader global climate change challenge intersects with migration, proliferation, radicalization, and even the pandemic in a cocktail of crises that no one country can address alone. Biden sent a signal that he understands this by inviting Putin to join the virtual climate summit in April, even as his administration moved ahead on Russia sanctions.
Cyber espionage and ransomware attacks from Russia are an increasingly urgent problem. Reports in late May indicated that the same Russian group responsible for last year’s SolarWinds hack breached private servers and used them to spoof emails from the U.S. Agency for International Development for intelligence gathering purposes. Ransomware attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS in May and June appeared also to come from Russia, though the White House said only that the Kremlin bore some responsibility to rein in the groups involved. Heading into the Geneva summit, Biden’s message to Putin is that “responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals.” Both sides could clearly benefit from a discussion of cyber “rules of the road,” though if Putin reiterates his proposal for a mutual noninterference agreement, that is likely to be rejected as it has been by past U.S. administrations.
Solidarity with America’s democratic allies is also central to Biden’s thinking about transnational challenges, including his approach to Russia. It is no accident that the planned summit with Putin comes only after the president has hosted the NATO secretary general, prime minister of Japan, and South Korean prime minster at the White House. In addition, Biden had a phone call on Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (in which he invited Zelenskyy to visit the White House later this summer), and will meet with G-7, European Union, and NATO counterparts in Western Europe before flying to Geneva for the summit with Putin. G-7 finance ministers have already agreed to a global corporate tax minimum that will help Biden shore up U.S. economic competitiveness, and he should seek assurances from European leaders about coordinating future sanctions pressure on Russia and Iran, as well as contributions to NATO’s collective defense. Far from a reversal of his longstanding support for Ukraine, Biden’s recent decision to exempt the German consortium building the Nord Stream II pipeline from U.S. sanctions was about forging a common trans-Atlantic front that will in fact strengthen his hand with Putin — including if it comes to turning off the flow of Russian gas to punish future aggression.
The Long View
For Biden, strategic competition with China is the geopolitical order of the day, but he is not likely to raise that issue directly with Putin. With Russia and China adhering to the principle “never against each other if not always together,” it would take incentives Washington is unprepared to offer Moscow to draw it into a productive strategic dialogue about containing Chinese power. The best outcome U.S. policymakers could aim for, as Biden has suggested, would be to de-escalate the current confrontation with Russia and work toward a more stable, predictable relationship that might, gradually and over time, offer openings for Russia to pursue a more balanced foreign policy, rather than lopsided dependence on China.
Despite tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic personnel in April, the United States and Russia may also be ready to begin rebuilding the diplomatic infrastructure needed to support engagement, subject to clear red lines on acceptable treatment of diplomats, and of one another’s citizens generally. The two sides’ diplomatic missions have been dramatically cut back in the wake of mutual expulsions and closing of consular facilities in the past four years. This limits both sides’ ability to conduct official dialogue, but even more importantly it constrains the relationship between the American and Russian people, which Biden has recognized as being of enduring importance. In late May, Biden emphasized his intent to press Putin on human rights in Russia, including the plight of hundreds of political prisoners, like opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This will be a sticking point, since Putin’s latest crackdown is aimed at silencing independent voices in the run-up to parliamentary elections planned for September.
In sum, Biden appears to be approaching Russia with limited expectations and with eyes wide open. An Obama-style “reset” with Moscow is off the table, but Biden should aim to revive the skillful diplomacy that actually worked during the Obama years to negotiate New START, secure Russian supply routes to Afghanistan, and address Iran’s nuclear program. The key is to do so without the misplaced expectations for political change within Russia or full partnership with the West that resulted in inevitable disappointment. Biden’s approach should eschew grand gestures and put national interests ahead of personalities and politics, which were major stumbling blocks in the recent past. The Biden-Putin summit will be an important early step in the U.S. administration’s Russia strategy, the point of which is to set the direction for hard work ahead, not to tie everything up with a handshake and a signing ceremony.
Matthew Rojansky is director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and serves as the U.S. executive secretary of the Dartmouth Conference, a track-two U.S.-Russian conflict resolution initiative begun in 1960.
Image: White House