An emboldened Joe Biden to meet an unbothered Vladimir Putin
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By Ishaan Tharoor
President Joe Biden landed in Geneva on Tuesday, ahead of his much-anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin the next day.
The powwow concludes his European tour, coming after a diplomatic sprint through Britain and Brussels, where Biden met leaders of the Group of Seven nations, Nato and the European Union. Buoyed by the solidarity of his allies - "They believe that I keep my commitments when I say it," Biden said Monday - the president is now wheeling around to face an adversary.
There are no great expectations for the meeting with Putin. The United States pushed for it to take place not to herald a "reset" with Russia - as Biden and the Obama administration once did more than a decade ago - but, in the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki, to "restore predictability and stability to the US-Russia relationship." Some experts contend that even that may be a tall order given the current atmosphere between Washington and Moscow.
The optics matter, too. Biden and Putin are not expected to hold a joint news conference after their meeting, a clear contrast to when President Donald Trump stood next to Putin in the Finnish capital Helsinki in 2018 and appeared to take his side over the assessments of the US intelligence community on Russian interference in US elections.
Biden famously called Putin a "killer" and once mused that he had no soul. The US president may want to come away from Wednesday's meeting having scored a few points, rather than having found common ground.
"A central theme of his presidency is that democracies do a better job for their people than autocracies, and Putin is among the world's leading challengers to that idea," my colleagues wrote. "Biden also is intent on showing that the United States has moved on from the Trump era's tolerance of authoritarians, and this is a pivotal moment for that effort."
But Republicans are already finding fault with Biden's outreach. The sheer fact of the leaders' upcoming encounter gives Putin the prestige of a bilateral meeting of equals. "Democrats complained that President Trump wasn't tough on Russia, while ignoring the facts" of his administration's broader hawkish posture toward the Kremlin, wrote former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in a Fox News op-ed. "If Biden apologises for America or casts pie-in-the-sky visions for cooperation, Putin will sense weakness, and America's Russia policy will be in for a long three and a half years."
In his first months in office, Biden already leveled new sanctions on Putin's regime for a range of alleged actions, including the cyber hacking of US agencies and the poisoning of prominent (and now imprisoned) Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. At the same time, Biden has also checked colleagues in the State Department and Democratic lawmakers who want the administration to take an even more aggressive approach to Moscow. According to my colleagues, he overruled his State Department lieutenants when opting to withhold sanctions on the company behind the construction of the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline between Russia and Germany.
"The tension demonstrates an emerging post-Trump dynamic," wrote my colleague John Hudson. "Many Democrats, still seething over the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 election, want Biden to exert maximum pressure on Russia. Republicans, who privately grimaced at Trump's glowing overtures to Putin, want the same."
In a briefing with reporters ahead of the meeting, Biden said he would convey to Putin where the United States' "red lines" are - possibly around issues of election interference, cybersecurity, military escalation with Ukraine and the treatment of Russian dissidents. "I'm going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses," Biden said. "And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond."
Putin, however, will present his own red lines. These include, as Carnegie Moscow's Dmitri Trenin detailed, the prospect of Ukraine's entry into Nato or US deployments to Ukraine, as well as Western interference in Belarus, whose long-standing ruler, President Alexander Lukashenko, has brutally cracked down on an opposition protest movement after claiming victory in an allegedly rigged election last year.
Russian state media has cast Putin as confident and blasé in the buildup to a summit where he has little to lose or to gain. "From the Kremlin's perspective, Russia's international status does not rest on the fact of holding periodic one-on-one meetings with an American president, but rather on the ability to reliably deter US military power and on being resilient to mounting US economic, financial, and political pressure in the form of various restrictions," wrote Trenin.
The Biden administration is trying to pivot US strategy more firmly toward reckoning with China and, by extension, may hope to deprioritise other challenges further to the west. Some US analysts warn that this could provoke Putin's "raiding strategy" - what Bloomberg Opinion columnist Hal Brands describes as the Russian president's "bid to make Moscow enough of a persistent threat to US interests that Washington ultimately feels compelled to bless Russia's sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, legitimise its influence in the Middle East, and make other concessions to reach accommodation."
Brands continued: "When Washington signals that it needs predictability in the relationship, it tempts Putin to show how easily he can deny that predictability until it meets Moscow's terms."
Other experts contend that Putin, too, may need predictability. "An increasingly out-of-touch autocrat presiding over a worsening economy, Putin cannot afford an uncontrolled intensification of international conflicts - especially with the United States," wrote Michael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs. "Putin needs levers to manage conflict. A working relationship with Biden would cost him nothing, and it might well purchase him the geopolitical respite he needs to address the fraying tapestry of domestic Russian politics."
"Maybe the most important thing is to make the relations more pragmatic," Tatiana Stanovaya, head of a think tank called R.Politik, told my colleague Isabelle Khurshudyan. "I don't think the Kremlin is really counting on having some important progress during the summit, but much more important will be what happens after the summit. The Kremlin would like to create some mechanisms to interact."
"Even if the meeting features mutual bashing and ends without a joint communiqué, a 'reset' or displays of chumminess or trust, simply getting together and demonstrating a readiness to give real diplomacy a chance - possibly by announcing joint initiatives on arms control, cybersecurity, climate change or the Arctic - would be mission accomplished," wrote Serge Schmemann of the New York Times editorial board.