On June 16, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to meet face to face for the first time since Biden became president in January.
The summit in Geneva, Switzerland is to take place after relations between the U.S. and Russia recently hit “rock bottom”, says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on the White House National Security Council under President Barack Obama. In the past year, the U.S. has issued sweeping sanctions on Russian officials over a long list of charges: election interference; persecuting activists and journalists in Russia, including the now-jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny; engaging in malicious cyber activities; bullying Ukraine and other actions. Russia, in turn, has criticized the U.S. for interfering in its domestic affairs and threatening international stability.
Putin’s meeting with Biden will undoubtedly be very different to the one he attended with former President Donald Trump in Helsinki in July 2018. Then, Trump declined to criticize Putin and openly dismissed U.S. intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Biden has pledged to take a tougher stance on Russia than Trump and will seek to restore “predictability and stability,” according to the White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, in a May 25 statement.
Geneva was also the site of the first meeting between the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, which helped to defuse tensions during the Cold War. Gorbachev, now 90 years old, told Interfax news agency on May 27 that “much has been destroyed in matters of strategic stability, now it is necessary to restore it.” He added that Biden was someone Russia “can negotiate with” and that the previous administration “turned out to be unreliable.”
What will Putin and Biden discuss in Geneva?
“A full range of pressing issues”, according to Psaki, from human rights issues to cyber attacks. The Kremlin, for its part, said the presidents would discuss “the current state and prospects of the Russian-U.S. relations, strategic stability issues and the acute problems on the international agenda, including interaction in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and settlement of regional conflicts.”
Ukraine will undoubtedly be on the agenda. Psaki said Biden will underscore support for the country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Russia has been under U.S. sanctions over its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014. Ever since, Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region have fought Kiev’s troops, with skirmishes breaking out periodically, sometimes intensely. In April, Biden called on Putin to “de-escalate tensions” after Moscow sent warships to menace Ukraine from the sea and sent tens of thousands of troops to gather at the border—the largest buildup since 2014.
Biden will also address Belarus’ forced landing of a Ryanair plane to arrest opposition blogger Roman Protasevich on May 23, Psaki said. The incident was widely condemned and some countries, including the U.K. and Lithuania, have decided to avoid Belarusian airspace. Putin, in a show of support for his ally Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, called the international response an “emotional outburst”.
The U.S. president has also said he will raise the issue of cyberattacks, after a spate of them on U.S. targets by Russian hackers. Biden pointed the finger at Russia for last year’s cyberattack against U.S. information technology firm SolarWinds, which compromised at least nine federal agencies and 100 Western companies.
But several prominent attacks have taken place more recently, many with Russian fingerprints on them; the Colonial Pipeline, America’s largest fuel pipeline, was taken down by cybercriminals in mid-May; on May 27, Microsoft revealed that a major cyber attack by Nobelium, the same group that U.S. says was behind SolarWinds attack, had targeted over 150 organizations worldwide. On June 1, the Brazilian meat production giant JBS, which provides much of the meat for north America, also said it was targeted by a ransomware attack originating from Russia.
Biden has said there was no evidence to link the Kremlin with the Colonial hack, but said Moscow needed to do more to deter attacks from within its borders.
What about Alexei Navalny?
Biden will very likely reiterate calls for the release of Russian opposition leader Navalny, says Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West,. The jailed activist was poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent last August, an attack Navalny and Western governments blamed on Moscow. The Kremlin denied it was behind the near-fatal poisoning.
In February, Navalny, head of Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison on charges of violating parole from an embezzlement case dating back to 2014 that he said was politically motivated.
Since then, Russia’s crackdown on opponents has only picked up pace, with the Kremlin on April 30 adding Navalny’s network of regional headquarters to a list of organizations involved in “extremism and terrorism”, together with groups such as Islamic State and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The designation means authorities can close the network’s bank accounts.
A Moscow court may soon declare that the political offices of the Anti-Corruption Organization are “extremist”, which would threaten staff, supporters and even donors with jail sentences.
What are relations like between Putin and Biden?
There is no personal chemistry, says Kadri Liik, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. During a 2011 meeting between the leaders, both of whom were vice presidents at the time, Biden looked into Putin’s eyes and said: “I don’t think you have a soul,” according to the New Yorker magazine. Under the Obama administration, they “did not find a common language,” says Liik.
Relations between the two leaders have become increasingly strained since Biden took office. In an interview in March, Biden agreed with the description of Putin as a “killer” and said the Russian leader “will pay a price” for his efforts to undermine the 2020 U.S. election. In response, Russia temporarily recalled its ambassador to the U.S. for the first time in 20 years. Putin responded to Biden’s comments, quoting a schoolyard saying: “he who calls names, is called that himself”, before quipping that he wished Biden “good health”.
In response to the poisoning and jailing of Navalny, the U.S. and E.U. in March announced a series of sanctions against several Russian officials and more than a dozen businesses and other entities. About a month later the U.S. announced it was expelling ten Russian diplomats and sanctioning companies and individuals in response to SolarWinds and election interference.
In what Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, called “tit-for-tat measure” against the U.S, the Kremlin on April 16 said it would expel 10 U.S. diplomats and blacklist eight current and former U.S. officials including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. It also said that Moscow would also stop activities of American organizations and funds that it finds “interfere” in its affairs.
Biden, however, recently decided to waive U.S. sanctions on the company building Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that critics in Europe and the U.S. say could deepen Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. The move, which Biden says was in the U.S. national interest, comes as he seeks to strengthen ties with Germany.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had described the waiver as “a positive signal”. In Liik’s view, some Russian officials have become less paranoid that Biden would dictate the terms of U.S. and Russia relations “at least not in such a crude manner”, she says. There is “growing respect” for the U.S. President in Russia, she adds.
What can the summit achieve?
The leaders will be seeking to find common ground and improve dialogue, says Kupchan. Some issues on which they might agree include the pandemic, instability in the Middle East and the climate crisis, he says.
The need to tackle climate change is an area where there is room for collaboration, says Lucas, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Biden has vowed to work with Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases and largest exporter of fossil fuels, on climate policy. At a U.S.- led virtual climate summit in April, Putin said he was “genuinely interested in galvanising international cooperation for effective solutions to climate change”. But the Kremlin has yet to produce a new national plan on cutting carbon, a requirement this year under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Few expect dramatic results from the summit. Biden wants merely to establish a working rapport with the Kremlin. On the Russian side, it is unclear whether Putin decided to meet Biden simply to prove that “he stands tall on the global stage” to the Russian public or because he is prepared to do business, says Kupchan.
There is at least a ”tentative willingness” to improve the atmosphere, he says. “We are early in this conversation. If there is going to have some kind of ‘reset’ with Russia, it will take hard work and a considerable amount of time.”