Takeaways from the Biden-Putin Summit
Dr Himani Pant, Associate Fellow, VIF

The downturn in the trajectory of US-Russia ties has become more pronounced since 2014. The differences over Ukraine, Middle East and others have been further exacerbated by charges of election meddling, cyber attacks levelled against Russia. At present, neither country has an ambassador in the other. Given this fragility of US-Russia ties, the Biden-Putin in Geneva is an important effort towards finding "stability and predictability" in the U.S.-Russia relations. The initial consultations between the two presidents saw in attendance only the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. This was followed by another meeting which included other senior officials. A joint communication on “strategic stability” was released soon afterwards. As can be surmised from the two separate press conferences that followed the Biden-Putin summit, the following issues were taken up in the meeting:

  1. Restoration of diplomatic ties-
  2. As expected, the leaders discussed and agreed to the return of US and Russian ambassadors to the embassies in Moscow and Washington respectively.

  3. Arms control:
  4. "Strategic stability" had been the buzzword of this summit. As two largest nuclear powers, both have a responsibility and this aspect remains a major arena for cooperation. As Timofei Bordachev puts it, “it is precisely the military-strategic importance of relations between Russia and the United States that remains the only reason why they are still important on a global scale.”1 It is notable that despite escalated tensions, the U.S. and Russia had agreed to extend the New START arms control treaty (till 2024) in February, soon after Biden assumed charge as president. Russia wants this treaty to be further extended and the consultations for the same at the interdepartmental level were agreed upon.2 A joint statement on strategic stability was signed and both sides have announced their decision to launch a ‘deliberate’ and ‘robust’ integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue “to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” 3

    Cyber Security: Another highlight of the meeting was Biden’s willingness to engage with Russia in the domain of cyber security. This is an important development given that the U.S. has often linked several cyber-attacks to Russia. This includes alleged interference in the US presidential election in 2016 and 2020. In the weeks leading up to the summit as well, ransom-ware hacks on the Colonial pipeline along the U.S. East Coast and a major U.S. beef producer-JBS, had also been linked to Russia.4 Russia has denied any involvement in cyber attacks on the U.S. government institutions or business enterprises. Both countries have now agreed to delegate experts to start consultations on cyber security. As pointed out by Biden during post meeting press conference, he gave Putin a list of about sixteen critical infrastructures that should be ‘off limits’ for cyber attacks. 5

  5. Ukraine and NATO:
  6. Given that the events in Ukraine have been a major contributor to the U.S.-Russia isolation, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, including fresh escalation of tensions since earlier this year, was expected to one of the major discussing points of the summit. Russia has frequently stated its disapproval for NATO in general and for Ukraine’s participation in the organisation particular. Moscow views invitation for Ukraine to join NATO or deploying military forces in the country would constitute crossing the red line.6

    While both Presidents agreed to have discussed Ukraine at the meeting, they did not speak at length about it. While President Putin merely agreed that “this topic was touched upon”, President Biden reaffirmed his support for the Minsk accords. Meanwhile, the NATO statement calls for the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements by all sides, and supports the efforts of the Normandy format and the Trilateral Contact Group.7 This is an interesting development given that Russia has often accused Ukraine of not abiding by the Minsk agreements. For instance, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted recently that “the whole point of the problem is Kiev's refusal to have a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk.8

  7. Human rights and prisoners’ swap:
  8. The issue of Alexey Navalny’s alleged poisoning and subsequent imprisonment upon return to Russia was also taken up in the summit. A related issue was that of a ban on Navalny's political network and restrictions on the U.S. funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which have been designated as "foreign agents" by the Russian government. While Putin in his statements has likened Navalny to any other convict, Biden was more forthcoming in his remarks on the matter. He noted in his media briefing of “disastrous consequences” if Navalny were to die in prison.

    With respect to the issue of imprisoned marines, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed in Russia, little progress was apparent. In the interview leading up to the Geneva summit with NBC, Putin had expressed willingness for prisoners’ swap, if done on a reciprocal basis and through the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons mechanism. However, this does not include Whelan, who is convicted in Russia for alleged espionage.

  9. Middle East and Afghanistan:

The two sides also discussed Syria and the reopening of UN aid corridor for humanitarian assistance. A vote on reopening the corridor will be held by the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power.9 The US concerns on Iran and nuclear weapons and Russia’s concerns on the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan were also addressed during the meeting.

Conclusion

The Geneva summit, followed by G7 and NATO meetings, has shed early light into Biden administration’s foreign policy. The administration has reaffirmed its relations with its Western partners as well as strived for some sort of ‘modus operandi’ in its engagement with Russia for a more “stable and predictable” relationship. Notwithstanding the differences, the fact that the US president took the initiative to convene a meeting with Putin as part of his first overseas trip demonstrates the importance his team bestows on US-Russia ties. However, while approaching Russia, Biden also sought “to walk a fine line of not pursuing a reset with Moscow while also seeking to avoid escalating an already fraught relationship.” 10 The larger geopolitical environment of an assertive China also needs to be taken into account while analysing Biden’s objectives. While problems with Russia have drawn for various reasons over the years, a military and economically strong China has imposed greater challenges for the US.

For Russia too, the meeting provided an important avenue to raise its concerns and viewpoints with the US. Given the dearth of Russian views in mainstream media, Putin’s long interview with NBC11 as well as the press conference following the meeting gave a sneak peek into the Russian concerns, worldview on the allegations levelled by the US. The Russian president, at one point during the interview, even said that he wanted the people to hear his viewpoint. Russia, too was neither “looking for a reset, or even a détente”. There were “no illusions in Moscow” as it saw no “prospect of a grand bargain of the kind that some Russians thought potentially doable at the start of the Donald Trump presidency”. 12

Given the strain in the partnership, the possibility of a breakthrough was neither plausible nor projected. The low expectations, thus, turned to be a good starting point for the meeting and the overall consensus remains that the meeting was constructive and positive. In this respect, the summit managed to achieve the modest goals that were set for it. While the actual results of the meeting will be visible in the coming months, it demonstrated a mutual desire for a dialogue, even if to disagree, and take into account each other’s interests.13 For India, this is a welcome development as the country values its relations with both the countries.

References
  1. https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-us-summit-global-is-more-important/
  2. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/65870
  3. U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability, 16 June 2021,
    http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5658
  4. https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-biden-summit-analysis-geneva/31303699.html
  5. https://twitter.com/i/broadcasts/1kvKpoennzDxE
  6. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/84753
  7. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm?selectedLocale=en
  8. https://ria.ru/20210608/vstrecha-1736092925.html
  9. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57494283
  10. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/11/biden-putin-summit-geneva-explainer/
  11. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/transcript-nbc-news-exclusive-interview-russia-s-vladimir-putin-n1270649
  12. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/84753
  13. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/65749

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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