I feel that I should write something about the outcome of the much-awaited Putin-Biden meeting in Geneva, but to be frank it’s a bit of a yawn. As was to be expected, nothing much was decided, though they at least avoided a major bust-up (it would have been more newsworthy if they hadn’t). The Russian news agency TASS asked me for a comment, and I replied as follows:
Expectations were low regarding this summit and it’s fair to say that those expectations were met. Nobody foresaw a major breakthrough on any issues, and there weren’t any. At most, they agreed to keep talking, especially on nuclear arms control. That said, the two sides took a very, very modest step towards better relations, as seen by the announcement that the respective ambassadors will be returning to their posts. Overall, I would assess as it as a very moderately positive outcome, but the gap between the two sides remains extremely wide.
In essence, there’s not a whole lot to say about the summit. The real issue is how both sides go on from here. There are serious impediments to any forward movement. It’s not just that the USA and Russia have incompatible views of their own national interests. It’s also that there appears to be an almost complete lack of mutual trust. Consequently, I tend to the view that what matters is not reaching agreement on any substantial matters but preventing the hotheads on either side from dragging US-Russia relations even further into the depths. In other words, it’s not about repairing relations, it’s about preventing them from collapsing entirely.
On the Russian side, the big danger, to my mind, is that some idiot in the security and intelligence services will take it into his brain to do something crazy, like the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, or even worse. Sadly, one can’t rule it out. Beyond that, outside of the talking heads on Russian TV shows, I don’t see any appetite for conflict in Russia. I see of lot of resignation that it’s unavoidable, but no desire to make things worse.
I’m less confident in that regard when it comes to the Americans. Biden himself seems fairly level-headed, but as I pointed out in a recent post about Ambassador Kurt Volker and his phrase “success is confrontation,” there is an element in the US foreign policy establishment that seems to be gunning for a fight. On the American side, the challenge will be to see these people off.
I suspect that Biden will be able to quieten the extremists on his side a little bit by pointing to the fact that he used the summit to raise issues with which Putin might feel uncomfortable, such as human rights. No doubt Biden’s supporters will use this as evidence that he is suitably “tough.” In reality, though, this is so much window dressing. One can’t imagine that it will change Russian behaviour in any way. More important is what Biden didn’t do, which is that he didn’t go out of his way to annoy Putin. Nor did he put any obvious spokes in the way of future negotiations. In fact, the summit ended with agreement to keep talking on some key matters. That’s not exactly progress, but it’s not the confrontation that Volker and his ilk were looking for.
In that sense, I see the summit as a bit of a defeat for the hardliners in Washington. Not a huge one, to be sure, but still a setback for them. Given that we couldn’t realistically have expected anything more, I think that on the whole we can consider the meeting a job well done.