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The Biden-Putin Summit | An Expert Analysis

On June 16, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva to discuss pressing issues including strategic stability and arms control, ransomware attacks, human rights, and Ukraine. The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts to provide their analysis of the summit. Read contributions from Sharyl Cross, Jill Dougherty, Jeffrey Edmonds, Michael Kimmage, and Ivan Kurilla below.

Explore the Analysis from Our Experts

  • The Geneva summit between U.S. president Joe Biden and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was an important first step in potentially restoring normalcy to the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship. Russia still shares nuclear parity with the United States, and Moscow can challenge American geopolitical and security interests across several issues and regions. The fact that the Biden administration made no attempt to reset the U.S. relationship with Russia contributed to establishing realistic expectations for the meeting and beyond. Even at the height of the Cold War, the two countries maintained diplomatic consultations and cooperated on strategic arms control. Despite significant clashes of values and interests, both leaders seem to recognize the need to collaborate in areas of mutual concern, particularly in nuclear arms control and cybersecurity. Both sides have complained that the current period is more dangerous than the Soviet era in some ways because boundaries are no longer clearly defined. The two nations and the world benefit from a “predictable and stable” U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, and limiting risk to avoid miscalculation that could lead to unintended consequences should be a highest priority.

    It appears from all accounts that the two leaders were able to hold the meeting in a constructive and even cordial manner. Both presidents successfully deflected questions from the media aimed at amplifying discord. Instead President Putin chose to say he appreciated the words Joe Biden shared from his mother, and the two leaders exchanged mutually favorable assessments regarding the capabilities of their counterpart. There were a few important deliverables for this first meeting, including resuming diplomatic exchanges with the return of ambassadors, clarifying potential “red lines” that should not be crossed without anticipating retaliation, initiating plans to work on arms control and cybersecurity, and possible prisoner exchanges. Rebuilding some confidence and a working level of trust will require that both sides commit to achieving progress in these critical areas and not allow a host of possible bilateral tensions and clashes to derail dialogue and collaboration.

    Looming large over the U.S.-Russia summit were President Biden’s meetings at the G-7, NATO, and the EU aimed at restoring U.S. engagement in the transatlantic community as a priority and building support among allies for countering China.Beijing has exploited the COVID-19 crisis, rapidly supplying global vaccine support at least in part to promote a message that authoritarian nations are more capable than democracies in meeting the needs of citizens of the world community. The image of the Chinese Communist Party has been damaged for lack of transparency and accountability in the pandemic crisis, perhaps catalyzing greater willingness among European nations to consider forging a coordinated China strategy. Referencing China in the NATO communiqué citing concerns about “stated ambitions and assertive behavior,” “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation,” and “cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” represented a start toward building greater consensus among democratic allies recognizing potential security threats emanating from China.

    Reducing tension in the highly strained U.S.-Russia relationship can be important in managing the more serious challenges posed by China. Although Russia and China have not yet formed a military alliance, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership has advanced so far since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that the United States will not be able to drive a wedge between the two countries. The conflictual relationship that existed in the Soviet era cannot be compared with the close Sino-Russian partnership today or the “cherished” relationship as described by Putin prior to the Geneva summit. At the same time, Russia remains a European power with cultural and longstanding ties to Europe. Moscow would benefit from restoring balance in relationships with China and the United States and Europe.

    The United States could have responded more wisely to the opening created by the end of the Cold War during the 1990s. Now the challenge is to avoid further deterioration in the relationship with Russia as we face two major authoritarian powers rejecting the rules and norms of the Western liberal order, which have served as the foundation for governing the global system since World War II.

    Most important, Washington should carefully weigh whether any action could result in driving China and Russia closer together.

    There is no question that great power competition is a central feature of the contemporary and emerging global security environment. Defining success or a desired end-state surely requires more thought and consideration. Would the end-state be regime change in China or Russia? Would “winning” culminate in confrontation, as some have suggested, or can we coexist with different values and systems of government and avoid major power war?

    We should anticipate that China and Russia might attempt to draw the United States into simultaneous regional clashes (in Ukraine, Taiwan, or other areas) or multidomain gray-zone conflict consuming and diverting resources. At the same time, it seems that all three nations might understand that a major power kinetic war would have catastrophic consequences. The security of the international community will to a large extent depend on the ability of the United States and its democratic allies in Europe, Asia, and throughout the world to constructively engage Russia and China in managing a complex security environment of rapidly accelerating technological change and existential security challenges (nuclear and cybersecurity, climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and more).

  • At his summit news conference Vladimir Putin turned to one of the greats of Russian literature to describe his modest expectations for the meeting with Joe Biden: “You know, Leo Tolstoy once said: ‘In life there is no happiness, only brief flashes of lightning on the horizon. Cherish that.’ I don’t think, in this situation, there can be any family trust, but there were, I think some flashes of summer lightning.”

    Biden, too, said he had no great expectations, and he reached for a folksy American saying: “Look, this is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.… You know, as that old expression goes, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ We’re going to know shortly.”

    Amid the mixed metaphors and tempered expectations, the two leaders emerged with the most significant and potentially long-term deliverable from their summit: agreeing to create a bilateral strategic stability dialogue (Putin called it “consultations”) in which experts from both sides will work to create a “mechanism” aimed at controlling new, sophisticated, and highly dangerous weapons now being developed by both sides that “reduce the times of response,” as Biden explained, and that, if used, could ignite an all-out nuclear war. Biden said he and Putin, in their private discussions, “went into some detail of what those weapons systems were.”

    The two leaders also discussed the contentious issue of cybersecurity. Biden said he gave the Russian president a list of sixteen areas of critical national security that should be off-limits for attack by either side, including things like energy grids, nuclear facilities, water, food, health care, and emergency services.

    In one of his starkest comments at his news conference, Biden noted, “I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability. And he knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant. And if, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond with cyber. He knows.”

    And yet, as Putin described the meeting, there was “no hostility at all.” “Quite the contrary,” he said. “Our meeting was, of course, a principled one, and our positions diverge on many issues, but I still think that both of us showed a willingness to understand each other and look for ways of bringing our positions closer together. The conversation was quite constructive.”

    Biden gave a bit more detail: “There are no threats, just simple assertions made. And no ‘Well, if you do that, then we’ll do this’—wasn’t anything I said. It was just letting him know where I stood; what I thought we could accomplish together; and what, in fact … if there were violations of American sovereignty, what would we do.”

    That did not mean that, when the discussion came to hacking, Putin proffered a “mea culpa” and promised never to do it again. No one in Washington—or Moscow—ever expected that to happen. In fact, speaking to reporters, Putin charged that most of the hacking in the world comes from the United States and accused Washington of not being interested in solving the issue of cybersecurity, something he has been promoting for years. Biden didn’t take the bait. Instead, he took a different diplomatic, even psychological approach. It matters to Putin, he said, if Russia’s “credibility worldwide sinks.”

    “Let’s get this straight,” he told reporters. “How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries, and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engaged in activities that he is engaged in? It diminishes the standing of a country that is desperately trying to make sure it maintains its standing as a major world power.”

    Significantly, the American president expressed some understanding of what he thinks motivates Vladimir Putin: “He still, I believe, is concerned about being, quote, ‘encircled.’ He still is concerned that we, in fact, are looking to take him down, et cetera. He still has those concerns, but I don’t think they are the driving force as to the kind of relationship he’s looking for with the United States.”

    In one immediate step to put the U.S.-Russia relationship back on track, Putin and Biden agreed to return their ambassadors to their respective posts and to begin consultation on a raft of diplomatic issues. But neither leader expects an instant cure, and it could take months, if not years, to see whether the strategic stability dialogue will be stillborn or will thrive.

    At a perilous moment, the Russian and American presidents sat down together—in itself a victory for sanity. A relationship defined for decades by nuclear arms control now faces an even more perilous threat in the cyber realm. Both men have peered into a future of illimitable danger, and that future seems frighteningly close.

  • The Biden-Putin summit was both necessary and productive, given the continued deterioration of the relationship between the two countries. This was not a time for far-reaching agreements, resets, or concrete proposals. It was a meeting to help arrest the back-and-forth between the two countries and try to establish a way forward to better understanding and predictability.

    Some may be disappointed by the lack of deliverables, but any expectation of commitments is premature at this point. And those who criticize the very existence of the summit perhaps have a less pragmatic and potentially less constructive approach than the current administration, which rightfully seeks greater predictability and understanding.

    While much of the attention is focused on the agreement to hold cyber-related discussions, the agreement to hold strategic stability talks is perhaps more useful and far-reaching. We have known that a strategic dialogue would likely come out of the summit, but it matters that both presidents have come out as sanctioning the talks and giving the dialogue the strength and legitimacy to be productive.

  • The meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in Geneva was unspectacular. Nobody arrived late. Nobody walked out. No great deliverables were announced. No breakthroughs were made. Neither president went off script in his respective press conference. Putin deflected questions about Russia’s democracy deficit and its violations of human rights. He was critical of American politics and of American foreign policy, repeating arguments he has been making for years, if not for decades. Biden outlined objectives for the U.S.-Russia relationship that have extensive historical precedent: peaceful coexistence, on the one hand and regret that Russia’s government is infused with authoritarianism on the other. And then, without having outraged anyone, these two presidents quietly traveled home.

    By realizing such an ordinary outcome, however, Biden and Putin achieved something extraordinary in Geneva. They agreed on little, and both seem well aware that there is little on which the United States and Russia will agree for the foreseeable future. But they did arrive at a common assumption, which was necessary for the meeting to take place at all, and this is that the bilateral relationship between the United States must be more than military deconfliction and cannot be limited to public invective, espionage, and the many ways in which Russia and the United States try to coerce one another into certain modes of behavior. Biden and Putin have both concluded that diplomacy is essential to the bilateral relationship, though surely neither has any tangible sense of where this diplomacy will lead. Diplomacy means meeting in person, for which there is no substitute, as Biden affirmed to journalists while sitting down with Putin. Diplomacy also means some degree of give-and-take, nothing as direct as a concession but an acknowledged will to explore the other’s ideas and priorities before further action is taken. A modest step for mankind, a big step for the leaders of these two particular countries.

    After 2014, when the United States and Russia arrived at sharply diverging positions over Ukraine’s future, they fell into a strange waiting game. The United States could not expel Russian soldiers from Ukraine or from the Donbas. It could not sanction Russia into doing what it wanted. It could not isolate Russia diplomatically, and in fact, Russia moved in 2015 to expand its military and diplomatic presence in the Middle East. The United States could wait for Putinism to unravel. There was no need to speed up the United States’ Russia policy, and Putinism might well be precarious. After all, the Soviet Union ended the Cold War by ceasing to exist. Perhaps the recipe for Washington was strategic patience, and a lot of it. Russia, meanwhile, could not prevent the United States and Ukraine from drawing closer. It could not stop NATO from expanding when even President Donald Trump, a NATO skeptic, allowed two new countries into the alliance. It could not dislodge the United States from the Middle East. It could not support enough antiestablishment political movements to change anything of substance in the transatlantic relationship, though Russia too could wait. Perhaps the West would go the way of the Soviet Union in 1991. Perhaps strategic patience was the answer for Moscow.

    In Geneva, Biden and Putin changed course. Strategic patience is not the answer, they decided; diplomacy is. None of this means that Putin and Biden have changed their goals, which they have not. None of this means that Putin and Biden will find it easy to roll up their sleeves and get things done, which they will not find easy to do. None of this means that the tension between the United States and Russia has begun to diminish. It has not. No summit could have altered these countries’ goals, their long-term chances of working together, or their clashing national interests. But a meeting of the two presidents in person is a chance to chart a future course rather than to wait of the other side to collapse. What just transpired in Geneva is, for all its appearance of scripted normalcy, historic. Historical change can be simultaneously subtle and dramatic.

  • The goal of the Vladimir Putin–Joe Biden summit was not to start improving U.S.-Russia relations but to stop their further deterioration. From this perspective, the two presidents can boast about the result. The ambassadors will return to each other’s capital, new teams of diplomats will start exploring the possibilities of a future strategic arms treaty, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Libya have been discussed and some aspects of the situation there apparently agreed on. Biden attempted to move the United States’ Russia policy out of domestic politics and back into the sphere of international security and national interests.

    Still, the Kremlin wanted to focus on global problems and avoid discussing human rights issues, while for the White House it was impossible not to bring up Navalny and the situation in Belarus and eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the United States has run up against the limits of its ability to influence Russian domestic affairs. So the main riddle in the meeting was about Biden’s plan: Did he have anything new to offer? He did. His plan seems to be to engage President Putin while linking any progress in relations to specific conditions. The U.S. president mentioned a period of six months, after which he would check whether the situation in Russia (or on the Russian-Ukrainian border) had or had not deteriorated. If it had deteriorated, all the promises to engage Putin globally would be deep-sixed. So, instead of applying direct pressure on Russia with respect to human rights, or pressure combined with hints that Russia might gain something (such as a lifting of some sanctions) by changing its policies, Biden says that Russia will be rewarded if it simply discontinues certain activities or current policies within six months. Certainly, the guardrails that Biden wanted to put in place look fragile. The Kremlin could do anything awful any time. Or some Kremlin subordinates may do something awful. However, it is a new approach, and we will see whether it fails or succeeds.

    Some experts are unhappy with what they see as Biden’s abandonment of the hard policy toward Putin in favor of a variant of “appeasement.” I would not agree. The heavy pressure of the earlier policies was aimed at internally dividing the Russian elite, which did not happen. The new policy deals with Putin as an ultimate ruler, but it gives him, not his elite, temptations of choice. In the authoritarian conditions of contemporary Russia, it may be a more fruitful policy option.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more