Biden and Putin.

US-Russia Summit Offers New Framework: Restarted Dialogue, With Biden as ‘Russia Hand’

June 18, 2021
Nikolas Gvosdev

Most media reaction to the meeting between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva focused on the optics: analyses of handshakes, body language, smiles and pouts in an effort to determine who was projecting confidence or unease and who would come off better in the battle of perceptions. Based on these tells, media analysts and pundits were quick to issue assessments of who "won" or "lost" at Geneva, as to whether Biden projected strength, resolve and determination against a rattled and unsettled Putin, or whether Putin benefitted from being perceived as a coequal peer to Biden (with the nod to past superpower summits during the Cold War).

But what can be lost in any horse-race analysis (of who won or lost, who is up and who is down) is the quiet and sometimes even subtle changes to the framework of relations. Biden and Putin met in the context of a deteriorating bilateral relationship, where grievances in both Washington and Moscow have been building for years, with no resolution. Right until the last minute, there was a series of events and incidents that could easily have led to a cancellation of the meeting. Moreover, Biden made it clear that he would pull no punches in his discussions, and that he was going to be very frank in forcefully raising complaints about both the domestic governance and international actions of the Kremlin. The readout from both leaders is that the discussions raised difficult and uncomfortable issues—but both countries felt it important to stress that, nonetheless, the talks were useful and the conversations good. The decision to return ambassadors and to concentrate efforts on a new round of strategic stability talks is an important signal: that both countries recognize that their relations are competitive and even at some points adversarial but that direct confrontation benefits no one, and the U.S. and Russia need a new framework for thrashing out their differences. (The test in the coming weeks will be in the follow-up; both countries will have to indicate and empower persons on both sides who will have responsibility and authority to negotiate.)

In my view, a takeaway from this meeting is that Biden offered a version of a "restart" (not a reset!). By this I mean that the American president catalogued a list of Russian actions that the U.S. has found objectionable, and in many cases has already responded to (usually with sanctions), but seemed to indicate a willingness to start fresh, on a whole range of issues, from Ukraine to Syria, and to establish a new set of benchmarks and red lines—for instance, making an explicit connection between Alexei Navalny's survival and future U.S. sanctions. In other words, within a framework of restarted dialogue, with clear channels (no confusing 3 a.m. tweets to decipher), disagreements can be mediated. The U.S. president's case was also helped by the revelation that on several issues that might have complicated the Geneva meeting—such as new sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or another round of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine—it was Biden himself who made the ultimate decision to suspend sanctions and table the aid package. In essence, Biden signaled that he himself is the ultimate "Russia hand" (to use Strobe Talbott's formulation) and that he will override the more hawkish preferences of his advisors if he sees fit, rather than be guided by their advice.

But the Russian side also benefits from a restart. After years of Moscow’s attempts to get the United States to negotiate cyber arms control, the recent ransomware attacks seem to have provoked an interest in taking up this matter. (Even the election interference in 2016 did not do that: Recall that early in 2017 Moscow immediately proposed talks about regulating use of cyber as a tool of statecraft and great power competition.) Biden threatened consequences for further cyberattacks emanating from Russian sources, apparently even singling out the Russian energy industry for possible retaliatory strikes, but also opened up the possibility of beginning to negotiate cyber rules of the road in terms of when and how these tools are used. 

Second, Biden explicitly recognized that Russia remains one of the great powers, able to influence the global agenda—and that Moscow cannot be ignored. This does not mean that Moscow has to be engaged in every format—certainly Biden is not going to act on Trump's suggestion of re-inviting Russia to the G-7—or that Russia must be invited to take part in Biden's proposed "summit of democracies." But Russia retains a seat at the table.

And because Russia retains a seat at the table for many of the global issues that matter most to this administration, one aftereffect of Geneva is the signaling that the importance of Ukraine as an issue in U.S.-Russia relations is diminishing. Biden, after all, was vice president during Barack Obama's "reset," which was predicated, in part, on sidelining disagreements over Ukraine from the main bilateral relationship. Biden does not have a Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv, who helpfully took Ukrainian membership in NATO off the agenda, helping to clear the way for some of the progress that was made during the Obama/Dmitry Medvedev relationship, but Biden made sure that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's frantic effort to get a definitive commitment on NATO membership for Ukraine prior to the Geneva meeting was swatted down. Biden and the other NATO leaders reaffirmed that Ukraine has a pathway to eventual membership, but that this is not on the immediate agenda. Indeed, when asked about this, the president was quite clear: "It depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. They still have to meet other criteria. School's out on that question; it remains to be seen."

The success of the Geneva meeting in taking steps toward a more stable and predictable U.S.-Russia relationship is welcomed by America's key European partners, especially Germany, which has tried to pursue a dual-track policy of engagement with and pressure against Moscow. Biden's overall European visit, including the G-7 and NATO summits, saw greater effort to create a more unified transatlantic consensus, with European, especially German, movement closer to the U.S. position. In turn, it seems that, in the effort to recreate a transatlantic consensus on Russia, Washington is moving closer to Berlin's position (although hoping that if the Greens become a more dominant political force after the September elections, Germany might also reduce engagement and increase pressure on Russia, especially on human rights matters).

Finally, we come to China. Beijing would have been very happy with a failed meeting, where Biden attempted to lecture Putin, presenting him with a series of ultimata, with Putin storming out in response. Instead, we have the promise of intensified dialogue—and the possibility that, in areas such as climate change and the Arctic, the U.S. might prioritize cooperation (including not imposing economic sanctions) over confrontation. Chinese analysts are well aware that a pivot in U.S. strategic attention to concentrate on the Indo-Pacific basin requires a stable (if not necessarily friendly) U.S.-Russia relationship, and the avoidance of ruptures between the U.S. and key European partners. The Geneva meeting provides a roadmap for meeting both of these objectives.

Former ambassador Michael McFaul is correct when he notes that "the hard work comes the day after the summit." A foundation has been laid, and now we need to see the commitment on both sides to construction.


Nikolas Gvosdev

Nikolas Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a senior fellow for Eurasia at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Photo by shared under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.