Why Biden will not return from Russia summit with love

Why Biden will not return from Russia summit with love

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Geneva is home to the European seat of the UN and the international headquarters of the Red Cross, yet its unofficial status as the world’s “peace capital” may not be borne out by Joe Biden’s big summit with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

Addressing US troops in the UK last week, it is noteworthy that the biggest line of applause Biden got was when he warned that he will tell Putin “what he wants him to know” in their meeting.  While the US president was playing to his military audience, he has repeatedly warned of “robust and meaningful” consequences for Russia if it continues to engage in “harmful” activities.

Hot-off-the-heels of the NATO summit on Monday Biden will use the session with Putin, who he has long had a chilly relationship with, to cover a full range of pressing issues including arms control, climate change, Moscow’s military involvement in Ukraine, and the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.  US concerns about Russia’s behavior grows by the month, at the moment, with organizations linked to Navalny outlawed by a Moscow court on Wednesday for being “extremist”.

This builds from US concern with Russia’s recent military escalation at the Ukraine border.  Former deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak has warned that Moscow could intervene to help its citizens in eastern Ukraine as tensions rise in the region which has been a flashpoint since Russian-sympathizing separatists seized swathes of territory there in 2014.

Biden is also still seething from recent major foreign cyber-hacks by Russia. A key US intelligence report released in January highlighted that up to 10 US government bodies, such as the US Treasury, had their data potentially severely compromised. Organizations outside of government were also affected, with work still ongoing to understand the scope of the incident.

The outlook for Washington’s relations with Moscow therefore appears bleak in the immediate term, and both sides are playing down expectations.  Russia was one of the last major countries to acknowledge Biden’s election victory last year, and Putin has no great hopes for an improved relationship. In April, the Russian president accused Western powers of trying to “pick on” Moscow and warned them not to cross any “red lines.”

For as long as Moscow’s relationship with Beijing remains so close, there are key geopolitical constraints on the scope of any future rapprochement given the post-pandemic chill in China-US ties.

Andrew Hammond

So the best that appears possible for the foreseeable future is both sides aiming for, in the US president’s words, a more “stable and predictable relationship.” Yet, Biden has not ruled out completely a more constructive relationship in the medium term and stressed that he is not “looking for conflict.” He was, after all, one of the architects of the attempted US re-set of relations with Moscow in the Obama era when key achievements included the US-Russia civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, and Washington is interested in a longer-term extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction agreement.

There may be some common agendas here, but also some real challenges to cooperation.  And if the going gets tough, Putin (68 years old compared to Biden’s 78) may already be thinking ahead to the next US president, or even two, hoping for another maverick Donald Trump-type figure more congenial to his interests.

This, despite the fact that the four years of Trump’s administration were a deep disappointment for Moscow, after the initial hints of a rapprochement and calls to “fully restore” ties. This agenda was stalled by the accusations of the Trump team’s collusion with Russia, a charge not completely refuted by the Mueller report.  However, a much wider range of issues clouded the bilateral agenda too. This included disagreements on issues from Iran to Syria and arms control deals, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which the Trump team began withdrawing from in response to alleged Russian violations.

Tensions between the two sides became particularly strained over Syria.  Trump’s former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in 2017 that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” referring to Moscow’s apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement, under which Russia was a guarantor, to remove these stockpiles from the country. The depths to which relations sank was underlined by then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev who said that bilateral relations were “one step away from war” and “totally ruined” after Trump ordered US bombing in Syria.

Going forward, one of the key uncertainties over US-Russia relations that Biden wants to probe is the degree to which Moscow’s much warmer ties with Beijing are now set in stone under Putin and Xi Jinping.  Perhaps the most cited area of their closer collaboration is on the political and security front. However, there is also an extensive economic dialogue which has grown since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

This underlines again the limits to which any warming of US-Russia ties might occur during Biden’s presidency. For as long as Moscow’s relationship with Beijing remains so close, there are key geopolitical constraints on the scope of any future rapprochement given the post-pandemic chill in China-US ties.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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