Yesterday’s U.S.-Russia summit was not the disaster that it could have been, but it nevertheless granted undeserved prestige to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
U.S. officials deliberately worked to keep expectations for the summit low. They were aided in part by Donald Trump’s disastrous 2018 performance in Helsinki; to some observers, all Joe Biden had to do heading into the talks in Geneva was avoid parroting his Russian counterpart’s line (which he didn’t, obviously). Apart from the fracas at the start of the summit, when Russian agents blocked U.S. reporters from entering the room, and Biden’s chiding of a reporter after his press conference, the meetings were otherwise largely drama-free.
But the very act of holding a meeting did Putin the favor of implying that the U.S. and Russia are on the same stage as two great powers. This is exactly what Putin wants, and what his domestic critics work strenuously to deny him. The overarching goal that the president and his advisers brought to the discussions was securing “strategic stability.” While Washington would be happy to bring calm to the two countries’ ties, it’s just not true, as Biden repeatedly said yesterday, that this is in Putin’s interest, too.
In fact, Moscow has spent the past several months ratcheting up its most egregious misbehavior. The morning of the summit, Russian ships were involved in the largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War — and off the coast of Hawaii. That was only the most recent provocation in a string of events showing that Putin believes he has more to gain by keeping tensions high and demanding unilateral concessions. In the weeks leading up to the summit, the Kremlin has targeted allies of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny, cracked down on Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty journalists with draconian enforcement of foreign-agent laws, and kept in place the bulk of a recent military buildup on the border with Ukraine. Putin himself also defended fellow autocrat Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus after he hijacked a flight from one EU country to another to snatch, arrest, and torture a young Belarusian journalist on board. Meanwhile, new revelations about the extent of Russian government-backed hacking operations continue to come to light, amid continued ransomware attacks against the U.S.
All of this took place against the backdrop of increasingly public complaints from leaders in Ukraine and Poland that the administration failed to consult them on a decision to drop crucial sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It’s of small consolation that Biden managed earlier in his trip a show of unity with some of the Western European countries that are comfortable with putting their Eastern neighbors in danger.
If the Russian president has any intention of changing direction, he didn’t indicate it during his solo falsehood-filled press conference that followed the three-hour meeting with Biden and his aides. Putin appeared to relish his role at the podium, hitting softball questions from Russian state media and parrying U.S. reporters’ queries with what Biden later termed “ridiculous” whataboutist answers. He denied that Russia perpetrates cyberattacks, instead claiming that the U.S. leads the world in the field. Asked repeatedly about his penchant for jailing, shooting, and poisoning Russian journalists and opposition figures, Putin invoked Guantanamo Bay and the U.S. war in Afghanistan, said he doesn’t want a Russian equivalent of Black Lives Matter and the Capitol riots, and defended his brutal squelching of dissent by citing the arrests of the January 6 rioters.
There were a few bright spots during yesterday’s events. American journalists performed admirably, even forcing awkward answers from Putin in which he referred to Navalny, the one man he truly seems to fear, as “this person.” And during his own press conference, Biden refreshingly promised “human rights is always going to be on the table,” sounding muscular notes on Navalny and the detention of Americans Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed in Russia.
But the summit’s main outcomes are of dubious worth. The two sides agreed to a strategic dialogue that seeks to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures” and to each return its respective ambassador to the other’s capital following a recent dispute in which Russia recalled its Washington envoy after Biden called Putin a “killer.” But potential bilateral arms-control agreements with Russia carry the risk of unacceptably constraining us in the Indo-Pacific unless they include China, too, and getting Russia’s ambassador back to Washington isn’t exactly an urgent priority, especially given Putin’s aggression in recent months.
The two sides also set out steps for future work on prisoner exchanges and carving out critical infrastructure that would be protected from future cyberattacks. But Biden didn’t need to initiate face-to-face talks to spur discussions between the U.S. State Department and Russia’s foreign ministry anyway.
All of which raises the question: Why did this summit need to take place at all? All of the agreements could have been made without granting Putin a one-on-one meeting with all the pomp of the summit.
“We’ll find out within the next six months to a year,” said Biden about whether any of this — from the strategic talks to prisoner releases to cyber-warfare limitations — will come to anything. What’s certain is that Putin walked away from the talks knowing that Biden, the only post–Cold War U.S. president to come to office without wholly naive hopes of overhauling the bilateral relationship, nevertheless sees fit to offer some concessions for even a limited chance at cooperation.