President Joe Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin emerged from their first in-person summit to point that “…they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.” Predictability in bilateral relations remains the desired goal, and channels of communication remain open, nonetheless, it has also become clear from the separate press conference held by each side that the two nations continue to have different views on issues ranging from human rights to cyber-attacks.
President Biden faced criticism for attending the summit itself. Critics point out that he provided legitimacy to the actions taken by President Putin by agreeing to meet with him. Nonetheless, many argue that stable relations between Russia and the United States is to the mutual interests of both countries. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated in the recent year. In March 2021, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, left Washington for Moscow, and, a few weeks later, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, also returned to Washington. In May 2021, the Russian government added the United States to a “list of unfriendly countries”—a measure that required the U.S. Embassy to dismiss all of its non-U.S. staff. With no ambassadors and reduced staff and representation, the channels of dialogue were limited. Re-establishing these channels is the priority for the Biden Administration as it focuses its attention on the challenges posed by China.
The Geneva Talks
It can be safely said that the talks in Geneva were held within pre-designated limits. The talks allowed the heads of government to speak about bringing stability into relations without crossing the ‘red lines’ for either, proving to be advantageous to both nations without loss of credibility.
President Biden stated that universal human rights and fundamental freedom of all men and women are part of America’s democratic values and the issue would never be ‘off the table’. He raised the issue of fair treatment of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader currently in jail. Mr. Navalny was on a hunger strike demanding access to better medical care in prison. There are fears for his life in prison. While the United States along with a host of other nations have condemned the arrest, President Biden during his talks did not stress his release, a possible red line that is not acceptable to Russia at the current moment. Along with the case of Navalny, President Biden also raised the case of two American citizens imprisoned in Russia.
President Biden also spoke to his counterpart on the situation in Ukraine. Tensions had escalated on the border between Russia and Ukraine, as Russia had amassed thousands of troops on the border in April 2021 for military exercises. Moscow has since withdrawn some of its troops but has left behind equipment and other weapons along with some military presence for another exercise in September 2021. The current talks between the two presidents seems to have discussed the issue of ceasefire violations by Russian-backed groups and that Russia abides by the agreement provisions. However, there has been no mention of the withdrawal of Russian troops. This allows Russia to continue to have influence and troops on the ground, while the United States is committed to its support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Cybersecurity was an important topic of discussion, with the United States increasingly looking at Russia as the source of cyber and ransomware attacks on its key facilities. President Putin acknowledged that cybersecurity is extremely important for both Russia and the United States. He denied that Russia has played a role in a spate of increasingly bold cyberattacks against U.S. institutions and said it was the United States that is the biggest offender. In principle, the two nations have agreed to sit down at the expert level and start working towards protecting their interests. The United States in turn has provided Russia with a list of sixteen specific critical infrastructure entities that should be off-limits to attack by cyber or any other means and these include energy and water systems.
Among the issues Biden raised with his counterpart was Syria — and in particular, the reauthorization of a humanitarian aid corridor run by the United Nations (UN) that is crucial to providing food, medicine and coronavirus vaccinations to 2.8 million people, most of them women and children. The Biden Administration is hoping that President Putin would relax his position on the issue and help the flow of more than 1,000 UN trucks a month through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, when it comes up for discussion in the Security Council, to avoid famine-like conditions. It would also help a UN program to vaccinate people — including front-line aid workers — against the coronavirus, at a moment when infection rates in the region are spiking. They would view it as a reflection of Russia’s commitment and a success of the talks. The situation in Afghanistan remains a concern for both nations. Russia would like some form of peace and stability to remain post-U.S. withdrawal. Terrorism is a universal challenge and one that Russia would like to ensure does not stream from Afghanistan to its own neighbourhood. Russia has indicated that it is willing to ‘help’ the United States, though the details have not yet been made public.
Other important issues discussed include nuclear security, strategic stability, reducing the prospect of accidental wars and working with Russia to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. The Arctic was another topic that was part of the discussion. President Putin stated that the U.S. concerns regarding Russian militarisation were absolutely groundless (emphasis added). He further added that Russia abides by the international laws that regulate the Arctic and would work with all members of the Arctic Council to ensure the safety of the Northern Sea Route.
Why Did President Biden Initiate the Summit?
President Biden has faced criticism from within the United States. Republican lawmakers have called into question the need for the summit. Even Democrats who feel that Russia interfered on behalf of former President Trump in the 2016 elections would like a tough stand on Russia. They feel that the summit meeting has compromised the stand of the U.S. Administration while providing legitimacy to President Putin and his actions that suppress democracy. However, as a nation that continues to wield considerable power, it would be difficult and naive to assume that Russia could be undermined irrespective of American summits meetings or talks. As President Biden stated the agenda is not against Russia but for the American people, similarly, the Russian President has left the door open for deeper engagement. President Putin had said he was ready for talks with the United States, and he voiced an unusual optimism about the possibility of achieving results.
The summit comes amid the COVID-19 crisis. The United States has amplified its vaccination programme, on the other hand in Russia, despite the availability of the vaccine there has been a lower push for it. President Putin himself has stated that mandatory vaccinations are impractical and could not be done. However, the mayor of Moscow has stated that the city would make it mandatory for its service sector people to be vaccinated. He further stated that mass vaccination was needed to stop the spread of the disease. The success of the Sputnik vaccine allows the two nations to cooperate with each other to address the the acute shortage of vaccines for the developing and underdeveloped nations, the while deepening engagements with each other.
The message from Geneva is that the leaders wanted to establish rules of engagement so that the countries can better address their differences and seek common ground on issues of mutual interest. With some predictability in ties with Russia, Biden can strengthen his China-focussed foreign policy. And with a less hostile America, Putin can retain Russian influence in the country’s backyard. In the past, President Trump had sought to isolate China and reach out to Russia. But, amid allegations that a Russian cyber campaign helped him win the 2016 elections, his attempts to build a bond with President Putin met with strong resistance in Washington. President Biden has no such hurdles in building this Russia policy. The Biden administration is trying to pivot the United States strategy towards addressing the challenges posed by China. On the other side, Russia is steadily deepening its partnership with China, especially as it is isolated and sanctioned by the West. President Biden appears to have wanted to arrest this close bonding while ensuring that relations become predictable. It would appear that Russia may also prefer predictability as it tries to strengthen its economy, fight the COVID-19 and check the growing influence of China in its backyard. If nothing else, the challenges posed by China may provide the Biden Administration with the common factor to ‘restore predictability and stability’ to the relationship.
It is too early to see any meaningful change in Russia-U.S. relations given the current atmosphere in both state capitals. Nonetheless, the Geneva summit suggests that policymakers in Washington view Russia as a secondary challenge and possible partner that needs to be tackled through diplomatic means and not coercion if the United States has to tackle a rising China.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
The Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference,” 16 June 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/06/16/remarks-by-president-biden-in-press-conference-4/, Accessed on 28 June 2021.
Mr Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent in August 2020 and collapsed on an internal flight in Siberia, he was flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment. After a five-month treatment he flew back to Russia where he was arrested on arrival for violation of his bail provisions.
The Washington Post, “Biden says he is testing Putin. The answer will come in Syria,” The Washington Post, 25 June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/24/biden-says-he-is-testing-putin-answer-will-come-syria/, Accessed on 25 June 2021.
Alexander Marrow, “Moscow city orders compulsory COVID-19 shots for 2 million workers”, 16 June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/moscow-authorities-make-covid-19-vaccination-compulsory-some-workers-2021-06-16/, Accessed on 03 July 2021.