It has been officially announced that the first full-fledged negotiations between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden will take place on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. On the agenda are Ukraine, Belarus and “issues of strategic stability.” What can be expected from the summit, given that U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated and contain more disagreements than reasons for cooperation?
The upcoming summit is an event of international importance, vital to the interests of Russia, the U.S. and world peace. Paradoxically, however, it would be naive to hope that these important negotiations will bring tangible results and change anything in general.
One can spend a long time listing all the reasons for the impasse in the relations between the two countries and blaming Americans for the situation. Crucially, it is much more difficult for the two leaders to find common ground now than during the Cold War.
Whichever “pair” of leaders of the Cold War years we discuss, Leonid Brezhnev-Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev, they had the most critical reason to sit down and negotiate — the threat of nuclear war and the fear of mutually assured destruction. Back then, the attempts to reduce the risk of a global catastrophe led to “détente,” even though the parties persistently distrusted each other.
Joe Biden emerged as a politician and diplomat precisely during that period. Moreover, as a senator, he personally participated in the “détente” negotiations, discussing strategic arms limitation with Andrei Gromyko and Alexei Kosygin.* Although the Kremlin always advocated for direct negotiations, the idea of the Biden-Putin summit came from the White House. Therefore, the summit Biden initiated is by no means a breakthrough — the deadlock is not yet broken. For Donald Trump, the initiation of negotiations could have been a bargaining chip, but Biden sees foreign policy differently — we sit down and talk, even if we hate each other.
By now, however, the fundamental reason for negotiations has become obsolete. This is not to say that relations between Moscow and Washington are better now than 40 years ago. It is just that the issue of nuclear war no longer seems relevant. During his first term, Reagan sincerely believed that Russia was inhabited by “red” fanatics ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the world revolution and the destruction of America. Biden, of course, does not believe in this — not because he is more intelligent than Reagan, but simply because the times have moved on. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is indecent to believe in such nonsense.
However, Biden’s administration is full of people subscribing to all sorts of “conspiracy theories” regarding Russia. At the same time, the fear of mutually assured destruction has been replaced by fierce competition around the world, which is ultimately driven by money.
The most striking example is Nord Stream 2 — the main competitor of American suppliers of liquefied gas to Europe. As practice has shown, Biden is ready to abandon some of the sanctions against the project so as not to spoil relations with Germany. However, from the perspective of both the U.S. and Russia, this is not a very significant concession since the completion of the project is inevitable. Biden does not want to give in; Russia reciprocates. As has already been said — a dead end.
Thus, even Biden’s seemingly important “friendly” steps, such as the extension of the New START, should not inspire optimism. Yes, this is a serious step, for which Trump was either not ready or deemed too expensive. Yes, it fully corresponds to Russian interests. However, it only reflects Biden’s long-held position since the 1970s — weapons of mass destruction must be somehow limited. New START is partly his brainchild — at the time the agreement was signed, he was vice president under Barack Obama.
The prospects for reaching an agreement on something else, or at least resuming dialogue on other problems at varying levels, are vague. However, the forecast is rather negative. Any agreements critically depend on Biden’s wishes. He will have to push aside many of his closest advisers, including the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to convert the talks into actual negotiations. Blinken believes that it is necessary to speak, first, about “values” — that is, lecturing Russia about life. Moscow will not tolerate this approach, meaning that the powers are unlikely to reach specific agreements.
Even COVID-19 does not look like a promising topic.
Of course, the fight against the pandemic is in the common interest, but it has already descended into “vaccine wars.” Therefore, it does not unite but, on the contrary, adds contradictions.
The further we go, the worse it gets. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Ukraine and Belarus will be among the topics that the U.S. president will raise at the summit. Both issues are kind of a “minefield,” dead in terms of any possible agreements. For Biden, Ukraine is a personal matter since he supervised it during Obama’s administration. What happened to the country during that time is painful to him, as Biden possibly perceives it as a personal failure. At the same time, with his father’s involvement, Hunter Biden received dirty money there for lobbying.
It is clear that Biden will demand that Putin “withdraw his troops.” The Russian president will answer that his troops are not in Ukraine, that Crimea is a Russian territory. He will add that the president of Ukraine needs to negotiate with the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic** in Donbass. As a result — an inevitable deadlock. It is probably even better not to begin any talks.
Belarus presents an even more complex issue. Biden probably will not risk demanding Moscow’s renunciation of the support of its closest ally — he must understand that this is simply pointless. But in the American worldview, Alexander Lukashenko is entirely under the control of the Russian government. They say that if the Russians demand, he will comply. In reality, everything is much more complicated. Still, Americans are not interested in reality. At the same time, Biden, specifically, is interested in particular issues that can be claimed as an American victory.
Suppose Biden wants to come up with those specific issues. Then, in exchange for some minor concession on his part, Biden will ask for Lukashenko’s cooperation, for example, in the release of Roman Protasevich.*** This would correspond to the “human rights” policy of his administration. It is easy to imagine how a conversation with Lukashenko on this topic would turn out in practice. First, the president of Belarus will be surprised, then remember Alexei Navalny and the Western intelligence services. In the end, allowing himself to be persuaded, he will agree, only out of deepest respect, to break the law in exchange for some financial assistance.
Then, Lukashenko will name an arbitrary sum to pay for Belarus’ troubles. Russia has no interest in such intrigue, and if it is interesting for Biden, then let him lend money to Lukashenko.
There is still a set of questions on “strategic stability,” also mentioned by Psaki. The content of those questions is still unconfirmed. However, when asked to list the potential topics for discussion, the comments of the American side boiled down to extremely minor, albeit important, issues, especially considering other disagreements. One example is cooperation on the Afghanistan settlement. However, Russia is already cooperating and even cooperated during the conflict’s most critical moments regarding Afghanistan. Probably, cooperation will continue, but it will not affect relations and will not simplify negotiations in any way.
The only lifesaver is the issue of combating climate change. Perhaps it really can lead to some kind of agreement, since for Biden, climate change is important ideologically. A significant faction of the Democrats demand a “green policy” from him. Russia is also not against a clear sky and environmental protection. Russia was one of the initiators of the Paris Agreement (from which Trump withdrew and which Biden rejoined), and the Russian government also attaches great importance to environmental issues.
Some groundwork had already been laid toward a potential agreement on climate. In April, the Russian and American delegations found themselves in the same hotel in New Delhi. The “coincidence” led to a seemingly unplanned meeting between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry. As a result, climate change was discussed, and both sides seemed satisfied with the talks.
This, to some extent, gives Biden a head start. If climate remains the only issue on which the parties can move to specific agreements, that will suit him. For the “nuclear” electorate, he is a “green” president, and he must assert this position. However, for Russian politics, this is a much less significant topic. Indeed, it is not worth belittling the importance of the very fact of the summit at the highest level. Without it, the necessary opportunities for dialogue between the superpowers will continue to lessen, risking further deterioration to a critical level. Nevertheless, everything points toward the fact that the only change on the American front will be the climate one.
*Translator’s note: Andrei Gromyko served as the Soviet Union’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (1957-1985). Alexei Kosygin served as Chairman of the Council of Ministers (1964-1980).
**Editor’s note: The Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic have declared independence from Ukraine, but the Ukrainian government considers them terrorist organizations.
***Editor’s note: Roman Protasevich is a journalist and activist in the pro-democracy movement in Belarus who is being held by the current government, which diverted a plane in order to arrest him.