Round One has started in this new heavyweight bout. At least the combatants came out of their respective corners to shake hands first:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 16, 2021
The much-heralded but low-expectations Geneva summit has now gotten underway. What momentous policy issues or geopolitical conflicts will be settled at this meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin? Both sides have set that bar particularly low, raising the question as to why either of them bothered in the first place:
Both the White House and the Kremlin have attempted to temper expectations and said not to expect any breakthroughs from the meeting. Some issues expected to be covered include recent cyberattacks that the United States has said originated from Russia, arms control, human rights and climate change.
Biden said Washington wants “a stable, predictable relationship” with Moscow. He proposed the meeting to Putin in April, after imposing new sanctions on Russia for the SolarWinds hack on various federal agencies.
You don’t use summits to create a “stable, predictable relationship,” especially with someone who’s been around as long as Putin. He’s been in charge for two decades, now on his fourth American president, three of whom thought they could talk Putin out of his innate imperialism. This is a thinly veiled swipe at Donald Trump’s chaos-agent track record, which in truth didn’t make any difference at all when it came to dealing with Putin — even if it shook up NATO, both for good and ill.
In fact, a summit is arguably a terrible choice in dealing with Putin, even though all four presidents have relied on that approach. Putin’s greatest ambition is to reunite the Soviet Union, only without all that “soviet” nonsense, and to restore Russia to its previous status as the opposing superpower to the US. That role has slipped to China in recent years, while Russia’s economy and loss of its quasi-colonies in Europe and Central Asia has hobbled Putin. Putin has made it clear that he sees the former Soviet republics as his sphere of influence, and in Belarus wants outright annexation as a means to project an image — primarily internally — as a strongman with the weight of history behind him.
Thus, offering summits to Putin only amplifies his standing at home as the counterweight to American presidents. That might be a worthwhile trade if the US had something specific in mind for the summit — a grand treaty on nuclear arms, perhaps, or an end to Russian occupation in Ukraine. However, nothing of the sort is on the agenda, at least not publicly. All this provides Biden is an opportunity to do a “reset button” visit, a strategy which worked out poorly for Barack Obama — but at least he left that to the diplomats rather than do it with Putin himself.
The better approach would be to sideline Putin while sapping his economy of its petrodollars. Trump had this much right in hobbling both Russia and Iran; he used American energy production to keep oil and gas prices so low that it impeded the ambitions of both Putin and Ali Khamenei. Biden is doing the precise opposite by curtailing American production while dropping sanctions against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany. That show of weakness just before this summit makes this meeting even less useful for Biden, while leaving Putin with nothing but upside.
This was a bad idea under any circumstances. Even the low expectations set by the White House are almost certainly not going to be met, except in briefing-room spin.
Update: Well, it didn’t take long for the first cleanup on Aisle 1. Biden appears to have nodded in response to a question about trusting Putin. Note the source for this:
Reporter to President Biden: Do you trust Putin? Do you trust each other?
President Biden looked directly at the reporter and nodded affirmatively.
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 16, 2021
Yamiche Alcindor is hardly a MAGA-friendly journalist — although she’s getting plenty of retweets from the MAGA crowd. As one remarked, Trump declared that he trusted Putin’s declarations of innocence in election interference in Helsinki and everyone lost their minds.
So does Biden also trust Putin, even though Biden called him a “killer”? No no no no, the White House insists, Biden was just “nodding in acknowledgment”:
It was a chaotic scrum with reporters shouting over each other. @POTUS was very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally. He said just two days ago in his presser: “verify, then trust.” https://t.co/5C9gP4XTtO
— Kate Bedingfield (@WHCommsDir) June 16, 2021
Alcindor then retreated … a little. She noted that she got this information from the pooler reporting at the summit, not directly herself. However, the pooler must have certainly seen the nod as a response to that question.
A great start, eh?