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Asymmetric Summit

Putin-Biden

The Geneva meeting of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin marked a new quality of relations between the United States and Russia

The U.S. President’s European tour ended with a mission that was eagerly awaited, but not because of hope for breakthrough decisions from the presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation. Rather, it was a matter of journalistic and common interest, whether one of leaders will make a faux pas or some anecdotal situation will arise and what the negotiators will look like against each other in general. In other words, the external side of the event was more attractive than its essence, which could not be changed by anything: not just opponents but antipodes had a meeting.

It was noticeable that the presidents also understood the super-attention paid to the form of their communication, so they were restrained and did not give rise to flashy headlines and scandalous photos. Each of them tried to look calm and confident, and their vast experience helped them do so. The key point was clear from the very beginning and left no room for surprises in the course of negotiations. Neither Biden nor Putin were tasked with bringing the positions of the United States and Russia closer together. The purpose of the meeting was to outline the boundaries of one’s own position in front of the other side, to record a high degree of mistrust and tension, and to try to find out how much this tension can be put under control.

In these talks, Joe Biden served not only as President of the United States but also as a leader of the West, a role he finally assumed during previous meetings in Europe with NATO allies, G7 and EU partners. According to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “Biden confidently and skillfully donned the mantle of leader of the free world on this trip. The previous president had ceded that mantle.”

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin represented the position of the anti-West, except not as dreamed in 2014, when Russia claimed leadership in the big BRICS bloc that was to become a global alternative to the West. Russia is now almost an outcast country with two loyal allies, Belarus and Syria, and situational partners China and Iran. The difference in the potentials behind the negotiators is striking, and if there had been no military factor and the Kremlin’s constant efforts to create problems for the West, the meeting would not have taken place. In this sense, those who compared the summit to talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are right: if North Korea’s had had no nuclear missile ambitions and had posed no threat to the outside world, there would have been no point in such a meeting. In the end, it turned out to be meaningless.

Anyway, both leaders really needed the Geneva talks. Putin needed them to prove to be the same antagonist of the West they have to reckon with. He had been building Russia setting it off against the West and finally achieved the result. Russia is no longer the “wrong” partner; it is not a partner at all. It is an adversary, an outspoken enemy in some ways. Now, no one doubts that the Kremlin will favour anti-Americanism as a basic component of its foreign and domestic policies. Any concessions in relations with the United States are impossible as they would mean acknowledging the weakness and erroneousness of key principles of Putin’s policy. It is important for him to present himself and Russia as a threat.

By the way, Trump’s ambivalent attitude towards Russia somewhat complicated the Kremlin’s foreign policy position. On the one hand, they supported the previous president’s attacks on the American system, NATO, and European partners in every possible way, even at the level of propaganda special operations, and apparently rejoiced at the White House head’s fascination with the Russian leader. On the other hand, America remained America, and sanctions were imposed consistently. In a sense, it is easier with Biden because this ambiguity has disappeared.

Biden had to show that the Trump era, with its dangerous sentiments towards Putin, was over and the meeting in Geneva was nothing like the U.S.–Russian presidents’ summit in Helsinki in 2018 when members of the U.S. delegation were ashamed of their own leader. At the same time, Joe Biden assured his compatriots, allies, and the whole world that, being the leader of the West and the free world, he was taking control of the situation with Russia.

At a press conference, the U.S. President said that six months to a year would allow assessing the summit results, i.e., to what extent the Kremlin is determined to continue heading for the confrontation. But at the same time, it is a period during which the agreements reached between the Western allies during the European tour should turn into concrete steps. It is noteworthy that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive in Berlin next week, where he is scheduled to meet with his counterpart, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has just had an opportunity to discuss important issues with Biden. However, this actually is the deepening of cooperation and coordination at a deeper, more detailed level. This is how the Western world works, and we will really see the results in six months or a year. Systemic challenges require systemic responses.

In other words, the Geneva summit marked the beginning of a new phase of intensive work on Russia’s track for the United States. There is nothing new ahead for Russia. Indeed, Vladimir Putin once again gave everyone an opportunity to make sure of his steadfast anti-Western position. It’s not news for the world or for the Russians. Putin has long ceased to be news for his own country and the rest of the world. But he has not ceased to be a threat, and this threat is constantly growing because, as it’s already been said, Russia cannot present anything else to the world. The world heard, saw, and drew conclusions. And yes, these conclusions are disappointing for Putin’s country.

Leonid Shvets

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