Care to guess what Putin will do with Joe Biden's "list of demands"?

Sergei Ilyin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

It is perhaps understandable that the White House would be maneuvering to avoid building excessive expectations among the public regarding Joe Biden’s summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such meetings rely on finding common ground if anything significant is to come of them, and that’s something that is currently in short supply. Most of the mainstream media is going along with the game plan, of course, trying to paint the American president as a tough guy who will read Putin the riot act without predicting that much will change as a result. But some seem to be taking things a bit further, essentially predicting a complete diplomatic failure. As the Wall Street Journal notes today, both Washington and Moscow plan to “project strength” at the meeting. What that accomplishes in terms of actual diplomacy and progress isn’t mentioned. (Subscription required)

Both sides have indicated they plan to use the summit in Geneva to project strength on the global stage and have lowered expectations that it will lead to a thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow.

“It’s about making myself very clear what the conditions are to get a better relationship with Russia,” Mr. Biden told reporters after the Group of Seven summit of wealthy democracies Sunday in Cornwall, England. “We’re not looking for conflict—we are looking to resolve those actions which we think are inconsistent with international norms.”

In an interview with NBC released Friday, Mr. Putin said the U.S. and Russia “have a bilateral relationship that has deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years.”

Mr. Biden said on Sunday, “To be clear, I think he’s right; it’s a low point.”

Officials from the Kremlin have already stated in advance that Putin isn’t looking for any sort of “thawing” of relations. It seems to be assumed that an adversarial relationship is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future and any unilateral concessions on Russia’s part are “out of the question.”

So what’s the point of the meeting if that’s the case? It turns out that Biden is bringing with him a list of demands that he plans to deliver to Putin. They mostly center on actions taken by Russia that are “inconsistent with international norms.” This led the Washington Post to ask the obvious question arising from Biden’s game plan. What happens if Putin simply ignores the demands as he has already indicated he plans to do?

It should be obvious by now that neither Biden nor Putin has anything of substance that they plan to put on the table this week. Russia isn’t going to suddenly release Alexei Navalny just because other countries are demanding it and he’s not going to stop messing around in Ukraine. Biden can’t afford to just start unilaterally dropping sanctions against the Russians or volunteer to reduce our strategic weapons inventory without some matching, verifiable offer from the other side. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious that might be achievable, but there’s really nothing that comes to mind.

As far as “international norms” are concerned, since when has Russia ever cared about those? The whole idea of “norms” on the international stage is very much left to the eye of the beholder. If you look at what passes for normal governmental behavior in China, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela you see things that make Putin look tame by comparison. If Navalny were in China, he wouldn’t be in jail right now. He would have just disappeared.

None of this is to say that we should somehow excuse Putin or the Russian government in general simply because there are even worse actors out there on the world stage. We shouldn’t. But we also need to be realistic about the limits of what can be accomplished, at least in the short term. Between the United States, Russia, and China, you see the three biggest dogs in the pack eyeing each other warily. But all of these dogs have tactical weapons, so nobody is going to make the first move and begin overt military engagements. Short of that, all we can really focus on is trying to limit the economic opportunities of our adversaries, but as we’ve seen in the past, they will simply turn around and do the same to us. We’ve been at this dance for a long time now and the music hasn’t changed much.

So we return to the original question posed above. Joe Biden has a list of demands that he claims he will read off to Putin. What will the former KGB officer do with the list? Most likely he’ll dump it into the circular file and laugh while doing so. But most of the major cable news outlets and larger newspapers will eat it up as a chance to portray Biden as the big, tough guy who is returning American foreign policy to “normal” after the Bad Orange Man left town. And that’s really what this trip was mostly about to begin with.

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