Biden and Putin meeting in Geneva was a necessary step in the right direction.
America’s relationship with Russia is back to more how it was during the Cold War. It is characterized by distance, but respect, and seems a bit like we are “Back to the USSR.” It wasn’t exactly love at first sight in Geneva — not like it was when Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin three years ago in Helsinki and said that he trusted the Russian president more than he did his own intelligence agencies. Nevertheless, the meeting in Geneva serves as an acknowledgement that things are going to be taken more seriously now and that the damaged relationship between the U.S. and Russia must take a more stable and predictable course.
The summit in Geneva was somewhat low on content. Joe Biden and Putin agreed to work toward more consensus when it comes to questions of security and armament. They agreed to send their ambassadors back to each other’s countries, since both have been called home. They also agreed to cooperate on climate issues. Establishing normal diplomatic relations — after rounds of mutual expulsion — is a crucial step toward normalizing the poisoned relationship.
Biden addressed human rights, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its hacking of American institutions and businesses, as he had promised beforehand. Putin answered by partly outright denying having done anything wrong, and then comparing his treatment of opposition in Russia with America’s retribution against the storming of Congress in January. We’re talking about what has, over time, become a ritual disagreement. Biden says it’s regrettable, but expedient, to separate human rights issues from security issues, even though he warned Putin that there would be great consequences if opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies in prison. In other words, diplomatic relations between the two nuclear superpowers seem to be back on track. More stability and predictability were what were hoped for going into this summit, and it seems like that was the result.
Attitudes and the chemistry between leaders are also important in meetings like this. By inviting Putin to Wednesday’s summit, Biden appealed to Putin’s vanity. It told the world, and not least Russia, that Putin is still a key player in the major league of world politics. And the value of satisfied vanity is not to be underestimated. One of the problems, maybe even the main problem, has been that Putin, in all his more than 20 years as president, has felt overlooked by the West. Now he is seen, at least for a little while, even if he’s being looked at with a sidelong glance.