Biden-Putin Summit: Surprising Or Long-Awaited? – OpEd
By Ambassador Arben Cici*
The White House has prepared for President Joe Biden’s first international trip since he was elected the 47th President of the United States. He started his first visit in Europe, where the welcoming climate seems, for many reasons, more positive than that to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, but also more challenging, despite rising expectations. Anyway, this agenda will be not only busy, but also heated, like a geopolitical clash of Summits in Europe. It began with the G-7 Summit, continues on June 11-13 in the United Kingdom, then with the NATO Summit in Belgium, on June 14, and culminates and come to the end with the high-stake meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia is not attending either the G-7 or NATO meetings. It was suspended from, in 2014, what was then the G-8 in response to its annexation of Crimea, and similarly, NATO suspended all cooperation with Russia for its ‘aggressive actions’ in Ukraine.
The first high-level meeting between the US President and the Russian President, which will take place on June 16 in Geneva, was confirmed simultaneously by both, the White House and the Kremlin. They issued brief statements, without demonstrating a high expectation of this event, somewhat unexpected, due to the strained relations between these two nuclear powers.
“…The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said the White House in a brief statement or the organization of this summit.
Just weeks after being elected President (February 4th), Biden stated in his address to State Department officials, called ‘America is back’ that he would have a very different manner to Russia than his predecessor, Trump.
‘We intend to discuss the state and prospects of further development of Russian-American relations, problems of strategic stability, as well as topical issues on the international agenda, including interaction in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the settlement of regional conflicts’, simultaneously said officially the Kremlin.
The context of the visit
It will be Biden’s first meeting with Putin since taking office but not the very first one between them, including that of 2011, which is remembered for exchanging not at all friendly jokes between them.
This summit comes almost three years after Putin’s meeting with Trump (and the only one between them) and today’s U.S. officials claim that the Russian President’s meeting with Biden will have to be different from the one in July 2018, during which Trump appeared on Putin’s side and openly denied US revelation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Russia, as the ‘biggest threat’ to U.S. security and its alliances, and former President Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin, were one of Biden’s battle horse weapons during Biden campaign for the White House, no further than last November.
Last month, the U.S. administration announced that 10 Russian diplomats were expelled and dozens of Russian companies and individuals were sanctioned in response to allegations in the SolarWinds hack and Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
The relations between the two powers are more turbulent than ever. The interviews of the two leaders in recent months, accompanied by accusations against each other, have strained even more these relations, consequence of which, for the first time in 20 years, Russia recalled on Moscow the Russian ambassador to Washington.
However, the today major global issues and the deep-seated disputes which call, of course, for immediate solutions between the U.S. and Russia, and not only, forced these two leaders to throw back the past of not very friendly relations and of bitter media darts between them, until a few weeks ago.
‘…We don’t only meet with people only when we agree. It’s important to meet with leaders when we have a range of disagreements, as we do with the Russian leaders’, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, thus responding to the critics of the organization of this important summit.
Possible talking points:
The agenda has not been made public yet but, according to occasional statements by the White House and the Kremlin, a number of acute issues, which can change radically overnight, will be raised for discussion during this important summit.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev are in charge of preparing the agenda, the pillars and spirit of which were based at the May 19 meeting of the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The readiness to put on the table all the possible issues for discussion, regardless of whether or not an agreement is reached, was publicly expressed.
‘I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner, very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our election, cyber-attacks, poisoning its citizens — are over’, said Biden, who on April 13th had his first telephone conversation with Putin, called ‘a tense first exchange’ by some comments and diplomatic corridors.
However, the statement of the White House means that the topics that can be discussed are acute, hot, the solution of which requires effort, attention, determination, responsibility, wisdom and the spirit of compromise, for the good and interests of both countries and the worldwide.
Therefore, when President Joe Biden will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 16, it will be one of the most watched summits of this year.
‘… They discussed a number of regional and global issues, including the intent of the United States and Russia to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues building on the extension of the “New START Treaty“. President Biden made it clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to such Russia’s actions as cyber intrusions and election interference. President Biden emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The President voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions. President Biden reaffirmed his intention to restore a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, in line with U.S. interests, and proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months, to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia’, the White House said in a statement on April 13th.
In 2014, Russia uniliterally annexed Crimea, an important peninsula in the Black Sea that is home to a Russian navy base, resulting in international condemnation and sanctions. Despite this, Russia maintained its position by warning the United States against sending warships to the Black Sea urging U.S. forces to stay away ‘for their own good’.
U.S. Intelligence Agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and that the country was behind recent cyber-attacks (last year) on U.S. companies and software systems.
The White House officially announced that last year Russian spies sabotaged a tiny piece of computer code buried in a popular piece of software called ‘Solar Winds’, which spread to 18.000 government and private computer networks. The hackers accessed the digital files of the U.S. departments of Justice, State, Treasury, Energy, Commerce and were able to pry into top-level communications, court documents and nuclear information.
The Biden administration announced sanctions in March against several senior Russian middle-ranking officials, along with more than a dozen other businesses and entities, even for the nearly fatal attack of the Russian Opposition Leader, Alexey Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok and his prisoning, in August 2020. According to the U.K. government, the Russian Secret Service used the same nerve agent for the poisoning of former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury, in 2018.
Suspicions have been publicly raised that Russian agents were offering bounties to Taliban to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which are in the process of returning home, and President Biden has a high sensitivity for the safety and lives of American troops.
Russia has consistently denied all these allegations, so it looks like it will not be an easy summit. The numerous issues on which these two powers have been debated and clashed with each other for a long time are part of not only bilateral concern, but also of global concern.
The result of the successful cooperation between these two countries, taking mutually coordinated measures in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic and the devastating economic, health and social consequences, as well as the substantial debate on climate change, are welcomed by the entire international community. Despite the complexity of the issues and extremely controversial attitudes, areas of cooperation such as the battle against Covid-19, climate change, setting ‘the rules of the game’ for cyber espionage, and minimizing the destabilizing of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, offer hope and opportunity for agreement and cooperation.
What will most likely be discussed in this summit, will be the controversial issue of the construction of the Nord Stream 2, which caused a conflict up to proposals for sanctions against Germany, one of the most important American allies in Europe. Senior U.S. officials insist that the pipeline threatens European energy security, heightens Russia’s influence and poses risks to Ukraine and Poland in bypassing both countries.
On the other hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the news of the summit commenting: ‘Diplomacy has a chance only if you speak to each other’.
It is no coincidence that this particular place was chosen for this important summit. President Biden has proposed the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to take place in a third country, so that the two can discuss ‘a full range of issues’. Geneva, this rich and very quiet city, on the shores of the lake of Geneva, offers stunning views of the Mont-Blanc peak, the highest peak in Western Europe, is an intriguing background for the summit.
Geneva is an important center of institutions and multinational international organizations, and the heart of Swiss neutrality.
This city became the main crossroad of diplomacy and intrigue in the post-Cold War years during the Cold War, and the crossroad where Soviet dominated Eastern bloc diplomacy met freely with the Western Capitalism of the American style.
Especially on November 19-20, 1985, Geneva made history when U.S. President Ronald Reagan first met with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a summit which was considered very important for breaking the ice between East and West and fostering more friendly relations between the two leaders throughout their presidential term.
Recently, this finding of the Biden administration seeks to revitalize the city’s reputation as a center of international diplomacy, distancing itself from the Trump administration, which mainly avoided its globalist institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, organizations in which the Biden administration has seriously re-engaged.
The importance of the Summit:
Given the recent tensions, the far-flung attitudes of the parties and the general skeptical bilateral climate, there is little confidence that the summit can achieve stunning results.
But trying to restore dialogue and communication in order to achieve ‘predictability and stability’ in relations with Russia is an ambitious and bold goal of the Biden administration.
Even if no significant progress is made in agreeing on the hot issues that can be discussed, both parties will legitimately claim that they have attempted in good faith, efforts to improve relations between them and consequently establish a different climate in international relations.
This meeting will give an important message in the general conflict situation, will contribute to de-escalate the tensions through the establishment of open lines of communication between Washington and Moscow on important global security issues of interest to Russia and the United States, especially in the debate over the control of nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, everyone agrees that: surprising or long-awaited, this summit will be the most globally attended diplomatic event.
*About the author: Ambassador Arben Cici has a long diplomatic carrier; he is a researcher and analyst in the field of international relations especially the issues of the region, author of books and many articles published in Albania and abroad. He is teaching at the University of Tirana and at the Mediterranean University as chair of international relations and diplomacy. He is diplomatic advisor to the President of the Republic of Albania.