Putin-Biden Summit: Not a Kumbaya Moment, but “A Glimmer of Hope”

On June 16th, President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva at a time when relations between the two countries are at the lowest level since the end of the Cold War. That’s probably why comments by both Putin and Biden left journalists, experts, and the general public feeling puzzled.  Contrary to previous rhetoric, the normally sparring leaders declared a course to rapprochement in many areas, including strategic stability, cybersecurity, cooperation in the Arctic region, and the exchange of prisoners. For instance, they discussed the situation with imprisoned American citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.  At the same time, political experts on both sides of the Atlantic are very skeptical. American analysts say that Putin can’t be trusted at all, and the Russians are expecting new sanctions as was the case after Putin’s last meeting with ex-president Trump. Certainly, neither Biden nor Putin are celebrating a honeymoon together. As Putin said, the meeting only offered a glimmer of hope. In Biden’s opinion, this was not a kumbaya moment, but it’s clearly not in anybody’s interest that we’re in a new Cold War.

According to members of the press corps in Geneva, the meeting between the two leaders lasted a couple of hours and was shorter than expected. Each president had an independent press conference instead of a joint one (as was the case with Putin and Trump). However, both leaders’ main points about the meeting were almost in sync. Biden said, “The relationship between [Russia and the US] has to be stable and predictable,” and the two countries “should be able to cooperate where it’s in our mutual interests.” Both sides agreed that the areas of potential future cooperation are strategic stability, arms control, cybersecurity, and prisoners exchange. 

According to the Kremlin, Russia and the US will soon launch a comprehensive bilateral dialogue on strategic stability, “which will be substantive and energetic.” Through this dialogue, each countries’ diplomats will aim “to lay the foundation for future arms control and risk mitigation measures.”  Biden said, “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters. We’ll find out whether we work to deal with everything from the release of people in Russian prisons or not. We’ll find out whether we have a cybersecurity arrangement that begins to bring some order.”  Among the courses of action agreed upon was that Russian and US ambassadors are returning to their posts in Washington, DC and Moscow, accordingly. 

Experts on the American side were mostly skeptical about any quick progress in U.S.-Russia relations after this meeting, specifically in reference to human rights issues (especially the Navalny case) and freedom of speech in Russia. As expected, there was no movement or conversion of views at all. In both cases, the Russian leader took a proactive and aggressive approach. Instead of answering directly to journalists’ questions about freedom of press and Navalny, he repeated his favorite narrative by suggesting the US look at itself. He also said that the Russian approach toward non-systemic opposition prevents what happened in the US in January.

At his press conference, Biden promised to follow the Navalny case closely. “I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia,” he said. The former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, sarcastically noted on Twitter that Putin “sounded like he supported peaceful protests … as long as they happen in the US and not Russia!” Biden also touched on Navalny’s case and explained that promotion of human rights is not about going after Russia only. “It’s not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights; it’s about who we are. How could I be the President of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” he explained.  Moreover, at the very end of Biden’s press conference, when he boasted about his productive talk with Putin, CNN Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins asked Biden why he was so confident that the Russian leader “will change his behavior.” Biden responded that he is not confident at all and is trying to change Russia’s behavior via international effort. “If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business,” he replied before quickly walking away from the podium.

Rather, “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest,” said the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. At the same time, both sides are going to benefit from it.  The columnist of DW’s Russian Division, Konstantin Eggert, wrote: “Maybe, indirectly, the White House actually admitted: Putin’s regime is here for a long time. For this, the Kremlin will be ready to give up to the Americans more than one hacker. 

Despite all the ideological differences that couldn’t be solved in the near future, both sides noted that via this meeting, Russia and the US demonstrated that even in times of tension, they can make progress to ensure stability in the strategic sphere and reduce risks. The Kremlin’s statement, for example, mentioned the recent extension of the START Treaty. Both countries understand that in a nuclear war, everyone loses. Only this way can dialogue be built on a foundation of shared goals and not competing geopolitical interests.

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