A summit of low expectations: Biden-Putin meeting at Geneva

June 14, 2021 11:18 AM

It is hard to imagine that the two leaders will achieve any breakthrough on substantial issues of strategic stability in East Europe, peace in West Asia, democracy, human rights and disarmament.

biden putin meetingA rapprochement between the US and Russia would please Indian policy-makers who struggle to sustain a delicate balance between Washington and Moscow. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Rajan Kumar, 

When expectations are low, outcomes are less frustrating. The summit between President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin at Geneva is happening at a time when the bilateral relationship has plunged to its lowest point in the last two decades. It is hard to imagine that the two leaders will achieve any breakthrough on substantial issues of strategic stability in East Europe, peace in West Asia, democracy, human rights and disarmament. It’s not that their interests do not converge, but they define their foreign policies in ways that are incompatible and essentially conflictual.

Departing from Donald Trump’s America First policy, the Biden administration seeks to reclaim the global leadership and rebuild ties with its allies in Europe and Asia. If earlier statements are any indication, it would pivot its policy around supporting democracies, strengthening international institutions, and making NATO the key instrument for security in Europe. The Biden administration blames the isolationist policies of Trump for the loss of credibility among its allies. He would attempt to restore trust to offset the rising influence of China and halt the disruptive designs of Russia.

From Russia’s perspective, the promotion of democracy in the post-Soviet space and NATO expansion are two core issues of contention. Any substantial improvement in the relationship hinges on Washington’s assurance to Moscow that it would not engage in the policy of regime change in Russia’s zone of influence. Moscow is extremely sensitive to external intervention in its neighbourhood and is unwilling to cede any ground to the US and its European allies. Democracy promotion is seen as a ruse to contain and destabilise Russia. Russia has drawn its red lines in the buffer states of Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. It would be unrealistic to expect that Washington would interfere in these states and Moscow would remain indifferent.

The memory of its humiliation in the 1990s evokes a widespread resentment against the West in Russia. Putin’s popularity soared primarily because he stabilised Russia and reversed the pro-Western orientation of its foreign policy. He steered the nation to an independent path and resisted the idea of Russia being treated as a junior partner. He is credited for restoring the pride of Russia by standing up to the West, something that the country had forgotten during the rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. As a matter of fact, he was not antagonistic to the West in early years, but Washington’s unrelenting pursuit of NATO’s enlargement, its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty (2002), Iraq war (2003), and support for regime changes in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, induced him to change his course.

Over the last two decades, he has consolidated his position and faces no real threat to his authority. The system is highly centralised with Putin at the helm of it. He cannot be seen as weak, conciliatory and appeasing to the West. People subscribe to his narrative of “political stability and sovereign democracy.” There is little incentive for him to change his course now. Therefore, he would engage with Biden on his own terms, and not be dictated by him.

To be fair, Russia never rejected the offer of engagements with the West. It would please its political elite if Russia is recognised as a European state. But the internal politics of Europe and the dominance of the US in the European security architecture prevent Russia from forging closer ties with the continent. On several occasions, France, Germany, Italy and Greece have underlined the significance of Russia in European security and stability. Recently, the US administration had to waive sanctions around the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline due to German resistance. French President, Emmanuel Macron, is on record having stated, “European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia”. This perception has intensified further with the rise of China, which is considered a bigger strategic rival of the West. Russia must be neutralised to counter China since the Moscow-Beijing axis will revive the spectre of the Cold War.

Attempts to reset ties with Russia have not succeeded in the past even when the milieu was far more conducive. President George W. Bush’s period was relatively calmer, and he found Putin to be “straightforward and trustworthy”. But towards the second term of his presidency, the ties began to deteriorate. Putin’s famous speech at the Munich Conference (2007) and his Georgia intervention (2008) were turning points in Russia’s relations with the West.

President Barack Obama sought to “reset buttons” with Russia with an implicit assurance that the US will not push for the expansion of NATO in return for Russian cooperation on Iran. Very soon, however, Moscow blamed Washington for fomenting unrest through pro-democracy protests in Russia. The crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s re-incorporation of Crimea in 2014 brought the relationship to a new low. Russia was kicked out of the G8, and heavy economic sanctions were slapped on it.

Among the American presidents, Trump carried the most favourable opinion of Putin. But the allegations of Russia interfering in US elections, favouring Trump against Hillary Clinton, made him cautious in his policies towards Moscow. He praised Putin on several occasions but ended up imposing sanctions under pressure from Washington’s powerful establishment. He cancelled the nuclear deal with Iran signed during the Obama administration.

If the Biden administration pursues a policy of consolidating democracies as a bulwark against authoritarianism, as indicated during the G7 meeting at Cornwall, there is no chance of improvement in ties between the two states. This policy will push Russia closer to China. A new Cold War type of politics may emerge wherein democracies would be pitted against autocracies.

The success of such policies is doubtful because of two main reasons: first, there is no consensus among the European states on treating China as an adversary. The G7 countries do not appear enthusiastic in committing required resources for the proposed “Build Back Better World” (B3W) project to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative. At the Cornwall Summit of G7, Germany, France and Italy appeared hesitant in taking concrete steps against China. Second, a combination of Chinese economic power and the Russian military will become unmanageable for the West.

The issues of SolarWind hack, the crisis in Ukraine, Russian election interference, the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the NATO and ongoing discussions with Iran will figure prominently in the talks between the two leaders. They may arrive at some agreements on arms control, Iran, Afghanistan, and climate change at best. If they could arrest the ties from further deterioration, that should be considered a success in the present circumstances.

A rapprochement between the US and Russia would please Indian policy-makers who struggle to sustain a delicate balance between Washington and Moscow. That condition, however, seems unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.

(The author teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. He can be reached at: rajan@mail.jnu.ac.in)

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