The U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva on June 16, 2021, was considered an exceptional event well before it had started. Russian President Vladimir Putin was elevated by Western observers to a level equal to that of the American leader, despite Russia having an economy smaller than that of California, Texas, or even New York, with a per capita nominal GDP matching the world's average. Before boarding Air Force One to fly from Geneva to Joint Base Andrews, U.S. President Joe Biden admitted that "Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now [but] wants desperately to remain a major power." Nevertheless, prior to his long trip to Europe, Time magazine put on its cover a picture showing the American leader looking only at the Russian President, and not at anybody else from among the more than 30 heads of states and governments whom he encountered during his trip to the Old World. So, Western journalists and policymakers once again did a perfect job of inflating President Putin's real weight in global politics – as I noted several years ago, they have been doing this effectively for years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with President Joe Biden in Geneva (source: Kremlin.ru, June 16, 2021).
(Source: Time magazine)
No One Can Say For Sure Whether The Summit Will Produce A Positive Trend In U.S.-Russia Relations
The summit brought the results I had expected. Both leaders addressed issues that could yield some positive results: They signed a joint statement condemning the use of nukes against each other, agreed on resuming regular consular relations and bringing both ambassadors back, and effectively started the process of exchanging both countries' citizens jailed by the other. The overall result was quite natural: the American president seemingly warned his Russian counterpart not to continue his aggressive moves in Ukraine, intervene in Belarus, or try to kill his political opponents at home. I would argue that this was a perfectly realistic and responsible approach since, on the one hand, the current situation evolved prior to Biden's appearance in the White House, making him care less about the stance itself than about its further developments; and, on the other hand, it seems clear that the United States has limited means of drawing Putin back, much less of transforming Russia into the "normal country" that several American experts have enthusiastically claimed it has already become.
Today, no one can say for sure whether the summit will produce a positive trend in U.S.-Russia relations in the long run. This depends upon what exactly the parties promised each other, how definitive the new "red lines" are and how precisely the timing for promises to be fulfilled was set. I would not say I am too optimistic about the long-term outcome, but it seems that Putin took the Geneva talks seriously – he even appeared at the Villa La Grange several minutes before his U.S. counterpart, something that had not happened for years.
But what I would like to focus on this time is the Geneva summit's aftermath, which was dominated by a harsh criticism of Biden's performance. The liberals in Russia, the entire Ukrainian political class, the Russian émigrés, and much of the U.S. media – all condemned Biden's behavior, with few supporters defending him. The most common accusation was that Biden decided to conduct his first one-on-one meeting with a foreign leader arranged outside the United States and organized without any connection to some international forum, with a man who has been depicted as a human rights violator, who had occupied a part of his neighbor's territory, and whom Biden himself quite recently called a "killer."
More accusations were made because of Biden's supposed "capitulation" to Putin "proved" by quite different actions: Some mentioned the list of 16 sectors of the U.S. economy vulnerable to cyberattacks that the Russians were warned to refrain from attacking; others focused on Biden's words about punishing Russia if Alexey Navalny is killed in jail, seeing them as a proof that Putin can crush his "non-loyal opposition" further; many pointed out that the U.S. president reaffirmed his commitment to the stillborn Minsk agreements about the Donbass conflict, therefore forcing Ukraine to comply with Moscow's demands. In addition to this, Biden was accused of "allowing" Putin to finalize his beloved Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project that will ship Russian gas directly to Germany, downplaying Ukraine's wishes for joining NATO.
Presidents Biden and Putin with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at Villa La Grange in Geneva. (Source: Twitter.com/WhiteHouse)
Moscow Is Ready For Some Détente In U.S.-Russia Relations
At the same time, in Russia all official media and experts known as being close to the Kremlin praised the summit's outcome, mentioning first of all the fact that Russia's geopolitical isolation has come to an end. I would say that it was Biden himself who fueled such feelings, since he reiterated that he came to Geneva after numerous meetings with European leaders as a representative of the "collective West," and Russian propaganda made full use of this notion. I personally agree with such a statement and believe that Geneva made Putin at least potentially welcomed in the Western nations, even though both Russia and the European nations may not make full use of this engagement option.
The Kremlin expressed its deep satisfaction with Biden's statement concerning the Minsk agreements, and various Russian TV stations interpreted it as proof of declining American interest in Ukraine ("everybody is already tired of it," as Vladislav Surkov, a former aide to President Putin, mentioned in one of his now rare video appearances). Due to the overall "respectful" (this word, I would say, was word used most often in the Russian press to describe the summit) atmosphere of the meeting, the Russian propaganda immediately changed tunes from being fiercely anti-American to more modest, and from depicting President Biden as "old" and "losing touch with reality" to depicting him as an "experienced statesman" who "enjoyed a long-term and impressive political career."
So, I would say that the Russian leadership seems to be prepared for a détente in U.S.-Russia relations and I strongly disagree with those who say that Russian troops will now break into Ukrainian territory at the earliest occasion. It seems a ceasefire is now in place that will not stop the Kremlin's pressure on the internal opposition but may soften its stance vis-à-vis Western media outlets inside Russia. For example, one may hope that Radio Liberty's Moscow office will be allowed to operate further as its fate was also debated in Geneva. The public opinion polls reflected a drop in Russians' negative attitudes toward the United States, and I believe it will soon be removed from the ill-fated "unfriendly countries" list. The Kremlin or its loyalists did not even widely comment on the announcement that the Biden administration looks to impose new sanctions on Russia in connection with Navalny's case, and to try to delay further the North Stream-2 project. Most recently, the Russian media commented very positively on the press conference held by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, in which both leaders talked about the benefits of establishing closer relations between Europe and Russia. Such a change of tone was directly attributed to the recent summit in Geneva.
As far as my personal attitude to the summit's outcome is concerned, I would say Biden was very argumentative and he made on Putin the impression that he wanted to. One should not expect any changes in the Kremlin's domestic policies (days after the Geneva meeting two local opposition deputies from St. Petersburg and Moscow who expressed their intention to run in the State Duma elections set for September 19, were detained and arrested) but as Moscow's foreign policy is concerned, one may hope for minor changes: As I mentioned, the anti-American rhetoric will definitely cease and some closer cooperation between countries may emerge. I would say that the most sensitive (and prospective) sphere is cyber-security, since Putin argued that the major part of cyberattacks originates from U.S. territory. It might be the right move for the Americans to propose wide negotiations of cyber-security issues and try to seduce the Russians into signing a comprehensive treaty or convention on these issues. In general, the Geneva opportunity should be used for strengthening U.S. security, since the Russian human rights problem cannot be solved anyway as the Russians care little about it themselves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with President Joe Biden in Geneva (Source: Kremlin.ru, June 16, 2021)
Since 2014, The West Has Tried Unsuccessfully To Change Russia's Increasingly Authoritarian Policies
The summit in Geneva was, after all, an event that highlighted at least two important issues plaguing the West's relations with the post-Soviet countries.
Concerning Russia, Western policy since 2014 has been aimed at changing the country's increasingly authoritarian and aggressive policies, and was, I would say, unsuccessful. I would compare it to Sisyphus' labors as this mythological figure tried to push the stone up the hill. It seems that Western policymakers have been doing the same for years, being frightened at the prospect of reaching the top – that can serve as an analogue to the introduction of the "sanctions from hell" that might destroy the Russian economy. Every time they fell short, the stone rolled back (the entire story of the North Stream-2, or the sanctions against Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska's companies prove this quite well). If I am right in my assumptions, the Geneva meeting may lead to several others, and their overall result will be, more or less, a "normalization" with Russia: Moscow should refrain from new aggressive moves, and the West will not lift formerly imposed sanctions, but rather use it in some arbitrary and irregular manner. If one cannot finalize some enterprise, it might be the best at some point to stop pretending that you are trying hard to do so.
Concerning Ukraine, I would express similar feelings. The United States and Europe expressed their full support to Ukraine as it was attacked by the Russians more than seven years ago. If some comparison to this situation might be found, I would take Israel, a country actively supported by America in its fight against its aggressive neighbors, which have been threatening its existence since the mid-20th century. But in the case of Israel, one has a dynamic economic power that transformed itself from a poor state into the leading regional economy with a state-of-the-art defense industry and incredible people ready to rise to defend their soil the moment it is necessary. Ukraine, by the way, shows quite a different approach: While it asks the West to sanction Russia, it is still actively engaged in dealing with its greatest enemy, as the recent leaked tapes suggest; the pro-Russian parties freely operate in the country; and there is in fact very little proof its leadership is concerned with the effective economic, technological, and military renaissance of the nation. And even if the U.S. officials immediately denied some rumors that America has discontinued its financial support for Ukraine, I would say this option should be considered quite seriously. As the Russian opposition cannot be set up from within the country, Ukraine's security cannot be provided for by predominantly foreign efforts.
To finalize, I would say that Geneva summit of 2021 will not have the consequences that the Geneva summit of 1985 between then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev once produced. But nevertheless it happened at a very interesting point in relations between "the West and the rest," so the way forward from the current position might be much more diverse than is commonly thought. In today's world, no option should be completely excluded, so we need some more time to see where the road that started from Geneva may bring both countries, whose leaders for several hours shared a magnificent library in the Villa La Grange.
*Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor
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