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Biden-Putin Geneva June 16 Meet: The Balance Sheet – Analysis

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US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on June 16, 2021 in the aftermath of G-7 Summit. The meet took place at ‘Vila la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland; in the backdrop of US global endeavour to revive its leadership in the world and bring its allies together which got disrupted during the days of Donald Trump. The meeting was without hugs and brickbats. The meeting was projected to discuss future relations between US and Russia, with special attention to those issues which are presently bone of contentions between the two; responsible for nosediving bilateral ties.

Endeavours at Smoothening Relations:

Meeting between the two leaders commenced with a gift by Biden to Putin. The gift was a crystal sculpture of an American Bison, which was created by Steuben Glass of New York. It has been interpretated as one of American nation’s most majestic mammals. The White House claimed it symbolizes strength, unity and resilience.

Another gift was a custom pair of aviators made by Randolph USA. Manufactured at a factory in Massachusetts, the sunglasses were designed for fighter pilots in 1978 through a collaboration between Randolph and the US military.

Offering gifts in international relations amounts to cultural diplomacy to smoothen bilateral relations and reach out to heart on the other side. Thus, Biden seems to have started on a good note yet it seems the end result were not consequential. 

Putin though had claimed before the meeting that he doesn’t think there is any kind of hostility between him and Biden. However, after the meeting even though the hostilities were nowhere evident; yet nothing seemed normal between the two leaders.

The Joint Statement:

Abandoning the traditional method of joint press conference both held separate events for the media, thereby attempting to prove their own point. The world learned the message in their own way about the simmering rift between them, as it was writ large all over media that US officials are attempting to downplay Russian leader Putin. However, both made policy commitments including their stand on nuclear policy. Thus, the meeting was more about self-interest; about their trust in each other as envisaged by Biden, to the media. On the other hand, Putin was glum over the question about the prospect of the new bond taking place between the two. At the end, both countries signed a Joint Statement including:

  • Their shared objectives to continue working towards a more stable and predictable relationship;
  • They reaffirmed the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought;
  • To continue working together on arms control through an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in their near future;

About the Summit:

Biden described Russia and the United States as “Two Great Powers”, which became a notable word choice amidst American officials prepared attempt at downplaying Russia’s influence.

  • While the Russian leader deemed it “constructive”, the US President called it “Positive.”
  • Biden put Russia, read Putin as “a worthy adversary” rather than some kind of a colleague. Putin called Biden an experienced politician.

Following issues were raised during first face-to-face meeting:

  • Biden clarified that his agenda is not against Russia rather for American people. However, from the address to the press what comes out that Biden was attempting to both downplay Putin and at the same time improve bilateral engagement on those issues they could agree. The contradiction in approach will surely undermine the achievement of the bilateral talks. 
  • Biden raised the case of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny as well as two “wrongly imprisoned” Americans held in Russia. According to Biden, “The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.” Bilateral ties could not be taken forwards in the spirit of criticism of each other, something that Biden must have understood before.
  • Biden also said that US would maintain an unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. This again provoked Putin and he was quick to highlight American misdoings on their land. 

Convergence Points:

The meeting was indeed much different from the Helsinki meet of Putin and Trump in 2018. Both the leaders staked out the clear areas of disagreement and also highlighted the smaller areas in which they could cooperate. They conveyed both mutual respect as well as mutual scepticism. In spite of widely prevalent bickering between both leaders, they willy nilly agreed on following issues:

  • To return their ambassadors to their respective posts in Moscow and Washington. Russia had withdrawn its envoy when in March 2021 Biden termed Putin as ‘the killer’. US following the same withdrew its ambassador from Russia. Hopefully, restoration of offices will enhance constructive engagement, in the larger interests of global community.
  • To start discussions on Cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is an issue that has concerned world leaders for years as Russia repeatedly interfered in elections and disrupted systems. Biden clarified to Putin that cyber-attacks and in particular the recent spate of ransomware hacks by criminal syndicates operating inside Russia requires to be contained. Putin agreed to task experts to “work on specific understanding on what’s off-limits and to follow up on specific cases.” Here again Biden remarked that he has identified US cyber capabilities and has clarified to respond if proper treatment is not meted out to the hackers. 
  • According to Biden both the parties agreed to pursue diplomacy referring to Minsk Agreement related to a peace deal negotiated in 2015 between Russia and Ukraine. However, Putin defended saying that his country’s actions in Ukraine was to promote the implementation of the Minsk Agreement.
  • Biden highlighted its treatment of people in Belarus and within Russia who are trying to oppose for want of democracy. Putin was quick to draw attention to Black Lives Matter and American treatment of the same. When Biden critiqued in the press about Putin’s treatment of Navalny; Putin too pointed out to Biden’s treatment of January 6, 2021 attack on Capitol Hill and the arrest of those people for differing political opinion.

The Balance Sheet:

Who won over the other or was their any signs of an ensuing bonhomie between the two leaders? It is difficult to ascertain. Both tried to hide their feelings about being wary of each-other and tried to the best of their abilities to play with words and yet convey some meaning to future of their relationship. 

Firstly, Putin seems to have scored better in terms of his image at home. The fact that he could not only stand up to the US but also ensured that US is not aggressive when face-to-face has brought success on home turf to Putin. This will certainly give me good stand in next election. 

Secondly, Putin is not wary of projecting that Russia is the world leader or in the making of it. On the other hand, US sole aim of his in-person G-7 Summit at Cornwall, followed by NATO meeting, EU meeting and finally meeting with Putin was to re-engage its erstwhile allies and project that US is back in international relations and hence, international cooperation is back. Putin did not have any such agenda on mind when met Biden. Therefore, Biden was more to lose vis-à-vis Putin if these meetings fail to bring considerable results. Thus, for now Putin seems to have edge over Biden. 

Thirdly, while addressing the media both played it to the best of their interests. Putin’s response to media was robust in which he shared his conviction that it is the West who is the dangerous, unpredictable, and aggressive partner in the relationship. Biden though addressed media after Putin but was largely trying to rebut his words and claims. Thus, Putin seemed to have been setting the agenda which Biden was scheduled to do. 

Fourthly, US and its western allies may have been talking hard of Russia and its actions; the fact remains that they have not been able to contain Putin and his allies. Thus, even the narratives that Putin is the man who poisoned political opponents; meddles in other countries’ elections; supports the Syrian dictator Bashar-al-Assad in bombing his own country; and has annexed foreign country; has not been able to create either rift among his supporters or malign his image in the eyes of his opposition. This has not even maligned his global image and standing. Rather Putin’s supporters may think after Biden-Putin meeting that Putin’s all actions are justified. Hence, it may count as Biden’s misadventure in the long run. 

Fifthly, neither Putin nor Biden was to be deterred by the confrontational questions from the media. They fielded each question by castigating the other. When Putin was asked about his treatment of opposition and human rights violations he was quick to respond by highlighting American treatment of racial prejudices, gun culture and detention camp at Guantanamo. Later, Biden called it ridiculous to compare the “Black Lives Matter’ with crackdown on democracy activist in Russia, referring to Putin. Thus, Putin did not lose his temper whereas Biden did so at the last question during the conference to which he later apologised too. Thus, here again Putin seems to have scored better than Biden.

Last and most important, the role of personal relations in foreign policy that plays considerable role towards making or marring the relations. If the personal repo of leaders also carries matching vives, it makes the bilateral engagement expedient and profound. Biden too pointed out, “All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It’s the way human nature functions.” The three hours talks that took place between the two leaders was termed as professional rather than friendly. The tone of Biden was warning Russia that if Russia infringed US interest, then US would respond devastatingly. Putin too replied in the same tone about Biden to the media, “He’s a balanced and professional man, and it’s clear that he’s very experienced. It seems to me that we did speak the same language.” Hence, the concluding remarks were confusing remarks: the meeting was to make the bilateral engagement or to unmake the same owing to personality clash and one-upmanship spirit on both sides.

Advantage Putin:

Overall, the June 16 meeting has brought some advantages to Putin:

First, after the meeting US will not be inclined to put additional economic sanctions on Russia. Probably, to try smoothening the bilateral engagement.

Secondly, US would now be reluctant to reprimand Putin for arresting dissenters at home. Again, for the same reason as stated above.

Thirdly, such score card of Putin on international level will bring greater benefit in next domestic elections within Russia, as highlighted above.

Therefore, Putin achieved considerable diplomatic success by just turning up at Geneva. He stood to gain only without anything at stake. 

Conclusion:

What was being expected of the bilateral meeting was a change of heart. The speculation was that Biden would be able to change Putin’s behaviour and his rhetoric. Even though Biden address the press after Putin and rebutted many of Putin’s words; yet he was not able to make the anticipated mark.

However, the outcome seems to be quite a mixed one as both sides have made claims and counter claims. It has been quite obvious that the Russian leader pursues the policies that he wants both on domestic turfs as well as in the outer world that too with total impunity and quite confidently. 

It seems that neither side was interested or determined to reset their relations. Hence, it cannot be taken as the beginning of the normalization of their relations. At max this may be the interlude or a pause in further deterioration of their relations. Yet, the balance sheet of the take-aways from the Biden-Putin Meeting is heavily tilted towards Putin.

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Dr. Alok Kumar Gupta

Dr. Alok Kumar Gupta, Associate Professor Department of Politics and International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand Ranchi, Jharkhand, India

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