Potential Fruits of the Biden-Putin Summit
The last time Joe Biden met Vladimir Putin, the two did not exactly hit it off. During the March 2011 meeting the-then vice president of the United States urged the then-prime minister of Russia not to return to the Kremlin, and then claimed to have reached unflattering conclusions about his Russian counterpart’s soul after the meeting was over. Putin too seems to have no love lost for Biden, even if he has been less blunt in showing it.
More than a decade has passed since that meeting in Russia, and there are no indications that Biden’s and Putin’s views of each other have become less dim, but that should not prevent the pragmatists in the White House and the Kremlin from at least trying to prevent further deterioration of the bilateral relationship when the two leaders meet in Switzerland on June 16. In fact, Biden and his key aides have recently signaled their interest in attempting to stabilize the U.S.-Russian relationship, making overtures in the form of conciliatory statements and granting sanctions waivers. In their turn, key members of Putin’s team have also spoken of the need for stability and compromise in U.S.-Russian ties, with other Russian officials expressing hope that the summit will cause a “local warming” in the bilateral relationship. If stabilization of the U.S.-Russian relationship is, indeed, an end that Biden and Putin agree is worth pursuing, then what would be the means to attain that end? A partial reversal of restrictions on diplomatic personnel quotas and a resumption of the dialogue on strategic stability at the level of the Deputy U.S. Secretary of State and Deputy Russian Foreign Minister could be among the means, which I believe the leaders can agree upon at their summit in Geneva. However, expecting that Biden and Putin would agree to some kind of a broad reset or reach deals on such major issues as rules of the road in the cyber domain, or resolutions of the conflicts in Ukraine or Syria, would be unrealistic
When heads of state meet for the first time, their aides typically look for opportunities for their bosses to pick some low-hanging fruit in the forms of agreements and/or declarations. Toward that end, an easy segue to warmer ties could include a (partial, at least) reversal of recent decisions by the United States and Russia to curtail each other’s diplomatic and consular missions. Both countries have had to downsize their diplomatic corps in each other’s territories in past rounds of bilateral tit-for-tat expulsions. Most recently, this diplomatic spat led the Russian government to announce that it would be banning the U.S. Embassy from employing local and third-country staff, though, reportedly, this ban has yet to be enforced. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has announced that it would be unable to process most non-immigrant visas in the absence of local staff, which in turn would leave both sides unable to implement one recommendation many experts make when relations between countries deteriorate: promote people-to-people diplomacy. An agreement by Putin and Biden (or their aides) to reverse some of the past cuts in diplomatic representation, avert planned cuts and return each other’s ambassadors to their respective missions is relatively easy to attain and could be portrayed as a win by both sides.
Reviving some scientist-to-scientist meetings and exchanges, which flourished when the two countries cooperated on enhancing nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism, would be more ambitious, but may also still be low enough fruit to be picked at the summit. Both sides have recently expressed an interest in such a revival, which might be something that the two leaders can act upon even as the Russian side seeks to increase the regulation of cooperation with foreign academics. Another piece of relatively low-hanging fruit would be agreeing to exchange some of the high-profile Americans held in Russian prisons for Russians held in U.S. prisons, but apparently such an exchange is not up for discussion.
Biden and Putin also appear to see eye to eye on temporarily lifting patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines, so agreeing at the summit to coordinate actions on such moves should not be very difficult. Finally and importantly, it should not be too difficult for the sides to officially revive bilateral strategic stability talks, which lapsed amid the latest White House changing of the guard. These talks, which Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has led from the Russian side, are traditionally non-committal, but could lead to better understanding and eventually to progress on arms control beyond the extension of New START, which Biden and Putin have already attained. At the same time, it is already too late to save the Open Skies Treaty, from which both countries have taken steps to withdraw.
The two leaders should also have no problem comparing notes on such issues as the United States’ return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which pertains to Iran nuclear matters; the early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan; climate change; North Korea’s nuclear program and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is difficult to see, however, what substantial progress can be made on any of these issues within the confines of the summit.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Russia and the United States share vital interests in preventing the country’s relapse into a haven for jihadist networks, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which have both displayed an interest in nuclear terrorism. Acting on that shared interest to thwart such efforts, U.S. and Russian law-enforcement officers even conducted joint operations in Afghanistan when Biden was vice president and Putin was prime minister. However, it is now difficult to see how the sides can do anything jointly in that country other than share intelligence on common threats, given U.S. concerns about Russia’s alleged behavior in that country; although Russian officials have unequivocally denied allegations that Russia paid bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and the Biden administration stated that it cannot be confident in the veracity of these claims, CIA analysts remain suspicious that a GRU unit may have been involved. In addition, leaders of Russia’s national security and intelligence communities remain under Western sanctions, which makes physical meetings between these individuals and their U.S. counterparts problematic.
On the JCPOA, the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, maintains that Russia has been playing a constructive role (although Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently evinced a very different view of Russia’s record). Negotiations on the U.S. return to the JCPOA remain a multilateral process that a bilateral summit between the United States and Russia cannot possibly resolve without the participation of other negotiating parities. When it comes to North Korea, both the United States and Russia ostensibly share an interest in denuclearizing that country, but their bilateral efforts cannot attain that unless the Hermit Kingdom’s main patron, China, gets involved.
One issue, which—if resolved—could help ensure greater stability in the military domain is the expansion of deconflicting arrangements that exist between Russia on one side and the United States and some, but not all, of its NATO allies on the other. Expanding and multilateralizing these agreements, which are designed to reduce the risk of accidental war, has been proposed time and again, but no progress has been recently made toward these two goals, even as top commanders on both sides have revealed concerns about what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley described as a “fraying peace.” It may also be time for United States to expand its deconfliction efforts with Russia to outer space. Major General DeAnna Burt, the commander of the U.S. Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command, recently stated that it might be time for the United States to establish a “deconfliction channel” with Russia and China in space, and Washington and Moscow have already held consultations on space security issues. Admittedly, an agreement on such complex and sensitive issues could not be reached in time for the upcoming summit. The two leaders could, however, agree to begin negotiations on multilateralizing existing agreements on deconflicting at sea, in the air and on land and expanding such deconfliction to space.
Reaching any kind of U.S.-Russian agreement on non-interference in elections or rules of the road in the cyber domain would also be problematic, given the recent hacks, which Washington blames on Russian intelligence agencies as well as criminal groups operating out of Russia, and the current atmosphere of bilateral relations, even though the Russian side is keen to discuss such issues during the summit. In addition, while the United States has consistently urged Putin to respect human rights, calling for the release of Alexei Navalny and an end to the Kremlin’s crack-down on the opposition and assassinations of the Kremlin’s opponents and defectors via chemical weapons abroad, Putin will be unwilling to heed these calls.
Nor would a breakthrough on the Ukraine conflict appears feasible at the summit, though hopefully the sides will discuss steps that can be taken to prevent the latter from heating up as many feared recently. As I have written earlier, for the conflict to be resolved, Ukraine, Russia and Western stakeholders need to agree on how they would accommodate each other’s minimum security requirements with regards to a resolution of that conflict as well as to a rebuilding of Europe’s broken security architecture more broadly, and that is not something that I see happening at the summit. Nor should we hope for any major progress on the Syrian conflict. Expecting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down per Washington’s wishes after having been “reelected” on May 26 is as futile as expecting the United States to concede to financing the re-building of Syria as long as this Russian-backed dictator remains in power. That said, there are signs that the United States and Russia could agree to some trade-offs with regard to the Syrian conflict, such as a discontinuation of the operations of a U.S. oil company in northeastern Syria in exchange for keeping open some of the key humanitarian aid channels that stretch across the Syrian-Turkish border into the rebel-held territories on the Syrian side.
As for climate change, both Biden and Putin pledged to take steps to reduce its negative impact at a virtual summit the U.S. leader organized in April, but it is difficult to see what they could achieve at their upcoming bilateral meeting in June other than a reiteration of their verbal commitment to the cause.
Finally, given the existing web of sanctions and the fact that neither Russia nor the United States is among each other’s top trading partners, it is difficult to expect the two sides to make substantive progress on economic issues, even if Putin were to again propose establishing a U.S.-Russian business council, as he did in 2018. The sides are also likely to continue to agree to disagree on the completion of Nord Stream 2, though recent steps taken by the Biden Administration indicate that the U.S. side is less likely to try to disrupt its completion, and Russia announced on June 4 that it had completed the laying of the first line of the gas pipeline, while Putin said gas supplies could begin in 10 days.
When it comes to some of the unilateral priorities vis-à-vis Russia, such as Biden’s interest in preventing Russia’s further alignment with China (whose leader, Xi Jinping, could not help noting that Biden has pledged to meet Putin before him) and Putin’s (unstated, but real) interest in easing some of the sanctions on Russia that the United States and its allies have already imposed, tangible progress will remain elusive. The same goes for Moscow’s support of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, whom the United States and its European allies no longer recognize as a legitimate president of that country.
What Could Go Wrong?
All assessments above are based on the continuation of current trends, which, of course, is far from guaranteed. There are issues in the bilateral pipeline that could impact the summit. For one, the State Department has had until June 2 to decide whether to impose additional sanctions against Russia, such as whether to impose restrictions on the acquisition of Russian state debt by U.S. entities for the suspected use of a chemical weapon against Alexey Navalny, or whether to grant a waiver. In addition, Biden’s April 15 ban on acquisitions of newly issued Russian state debt by U.S. financial institutions will come into force just before the summit.
As important, Biden is to attend the G7 summit in the United Kingdom and then the NATO summit in Brussels on June 11-14, immediately before his meeting with Putin. Strong words or pledged actions in communiques from either of these meetings could sour the Putin-Biden meeting, as could another “killer” question posed to Biden at media engagements. Finally, while none of the aforementioned developments are unlikely to derail the summit, other developments might, such as actions by external stakeholders to try to provoke a collision between U.S. and Russian forces in areas where they operate in close proximity.
Black swans or not, preparations for the bilateral summit are proceeding at full speed, as indicated by the preparatory meetings of the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers and national security advisers. If the summit does occur as planned, any sort of a grand deal would be out of the question, given the recent history of collisions on issues such as the Ukraine conflict, election interference and cyber security (even though it was Biden who proposed the ill-fated reset to Russian leadership back in 2009). That said, however, there is no reason why the two leaders cannot come to what Putin’s NSA Nikolai Patrushev predicted would be “mutually acceptable decisions” during the summit. Patrushev did not specify what these would be, but, as stated above, ending the current diplomatic war of attrition might be among them. As importantly, the fact that in addition to meeting in the so-called broad format, the two leaders will also meet in the narrow format with only key aides present generates hope that they could move beyond restating talking points and have an earnest discussion of what each side’s non-negotiable vital interests are and how to avoid blundering into unintentional conflicts by crossing them.
This commentary is a joint publication of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism and Russia Matters project.
The author would like to thank William Tobey, director of the US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, for reviewing an early draft of this commentary and suggesting improvements.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters.