President Joe Biden has a modest goal when he sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva this week: make sure the U.S.-Russia relationship doesn’t get any worse.
Putin heads into the June 16 summit with a similar objective, but also pleased to be on the same stage with the U.S. president despite being accused of election interference and encouraging a barrage of cyberattacks.
With both sides agreeing that ties are at a post-Cold War low, there’s no expectation of the strategic friendship that ex-President Donald Trump sought, or a grand nuclear breakthrough like that achieved by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin has signaled he’s only further entrenching Russia in Ukraine and pressing ahead with a crackdown on opposition leaders, while U.S. sanctions are staying put.
Biden is mostly eager to head off any more tension with Russia that would distract him from efforts to rebuild the American economy and focus his foreign policy firepower on China, analysts say. Biden will get a chance to strategize with NATO allies on Monday in Brussels, following a weekend of talks with G-7 leaders in Cornwall, U.K.
“Biden wants a relationship that prevents Russia from keeping the United States from executing on all of the other foreign policy priorities that he would rather be focusing on, like China and climate and covid,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. For Putin, it’s “important for him to keep the United States as an enemy, and to continue to demonstrate how he can stand up to the United States,” she said.
Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week his country has no “excessive expectations or illusions” about the outcome of the talks. State news channels have been instructed to avoid too much optimism in their coverage of the event, according to two people familiar with the matter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the meeting won’t be a “light-switch moment” for the two nations.
The skepticism about what can actually be achieved raises the question of why even hold a summit in the first place. The get-together was Biden’s idea, and Republicans have criticized him for offering what they say is a gift to the Russian leader.
The American strategy toward Putin hinges on what some experts argue is a naive hope — that after years of Russia ignoring U.S. demands to curb its behavior and the U.S. responding with sanctions, a face-to-face meeting will be Biden’s opportunity to establish some sort of credible deterrence against cyberattacks and make clear to Putin the new punishment he’ll face should he continue.
“We are looking to resolve those actions which we think are inconsistent with international norms,” Biden told reporters at a news conference in the U.K. on Sunday, while acknowledging that autocrats have a great deal of power and it can be hard to change their calculus. “Where we can work together, we may be able to do that.”
Then there are all the areas where the U.S. will either look for Russia’s help or, failing that, hope that Moscow won’t actively stymie its efforts. That includes efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, with Russia playing a key interlocutor role in talks underway in Vienna. The U.S. is also looking for Russia’s help to tamp down Taliban violence in Afghanistan as American forces continue their withdrawal.
One likely area for progress is on arms control. The New START Treaty, which put limits on warhead numbers on each side, expires in 2026. The U.S. wants to cover a whole range of strategic weapons that weren’t included in that deal under any future agreement. Such talks take years to conclude and need to start soon if there’s any chance of coming up with something new.
More immediately, the two sides could take small steps to restore diplomatic ties that were scaled back under former Presidents Barack Obama and Trump. U.S. consulates in Vladivostok and St. Petersburg remain closed, and visa issuances for Russians seeking to travel to the U.S. have slowed to a crawl. Many of the old channels of communication between the two governments have been cut.
The “biggest hope” for U.S. companies working in Russia is that the former Cold War foes will “decide to call a truce in diplomatic wars” so normal consular services can work again, said Alex Rodzianko, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow.
There will be time spent discussing regional conflicts where Russia plays an important role, such as in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. Putin will also look for Biden’s support for his idea to hold a summit of the leaders of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members: the U.S., Russia, China, France and the U.K.
But on many issues that matter to Biden, Putin has signaled he’s unwilling to make any concessions. He largely shrugged off a new round of sanctions in April over the massive SolarWinds Corp. hack and claims of election interference. Last week, a Russian court ruled that the opposition movement led by jailed dissident Alexei Navalny — who survived poisoning last year — is an extremist group.
Putin’s government spooked the West with a troop buildup last month along the Ukraine border, and backed Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko when his government diverted a commercial flight flying from Greece to Lithuania to detain a journalist onboard.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN on Friday that the primary reason Putin is attending the summit is because of the “the poor state of the relationship between our two countries” and that the session may be the only way “to prevent further degradation of our dialogue.”
The two men’s personal animosity is a marked contrast to Trump and Putin’s admiration for each other. In an ABC interview, Biden agreed with the characterization of Putin as a “killer.”
Putin, who has already outlasted four U.S. presidents, responded to the “killer” remark by saying it takes one to know one. He was equivocal about the shift from Trump to Biden during an interview with NBC News conducted in Moscow.
“That’s a different kind of person and it is my great hope that, yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements, on behalf of the sitting U.S. president,” Putin told NBC.
Despite Biden’s years of experience, U.S. officials have privately worried about the optics: the summit will be at the end of an eight-day trip, and the 78-year-old president is likely to be tired. Administration officials have fretted that Russian state media and Putin, 68, will be keen to highlight Biden’s advanced age and exploit any gaffe he may make.
In a sign of how the U.S. sees no chance of harmony with Putin, White House officials said Saturday that Biden and Putin wouldn’t hold a joint news conference. That will deny Putin the truly public moments he cherishes when he can look to exploit any gaffe or weakness.
It also rules out any possibility of what analysts call a “Helsinki moment,” a reference to the Trump-Putin summit in Finland in 2018 when, at a joint news conference, Trump took Putin’s word over his own intelligence community that Russia hadn’t hacked the U.S. election.
“Russia doesn’t really want stability,” said Fiona Hill, who served as National Security Council senior director for Russian and European Affairs under Trump and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They need to have friction with the United States for their internal purposes, and we just have to recognize that.” Of the U.S. president’s task, she said: “You’re just managing the mess.”