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Biden and Putin: A Quest for Engagement in Geneva

 Biden and Putin: A Quest for Engagement in Geneva
 Andrey Kortunov
Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

It is high time a worldwide competition was launched among scholars, journalists and bloggers on how to define the US-Russian relations after the Geneva summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. "Reset" will not pass, since the two sides have demonstrated some fundamental disagreements not limited to their approaches to specific international problems, but including their general views on global politics, on the present and future world order. "Détente" is no good either, because in coming months and years we are doomed to see more US sanctions against Russia, an intense information war between Moscow and Washington and an apparent lack of mutual empathy that was an important dimension of the US-Soviet interaction half a century ago. Still, it would be misleading to talk about a "new edition of the Cold War" - primarily because both Russia and the United States today have neither the will nor the capacity to run the international system to their liking. Both nations are much more concerned about their multiple domestic problems than about expanding their global empires. 

For the lack of a better term, one can call the emerging relationship "mutual containment with selective engagement". It sounds rather clumsy and does not qualify as a meme, but it at least describes the ambiguity of the relations. Containment here is a much more important dimension than engagement; the US-Russian interaction will continue to be primarily adversarial and/or competitive. It seems that both the Kremlin and the White House believe in an irreversible historic decline of the other side and therefore, the US and the Russian leaderships hope to outlive their opponents on the other side of the Atlantic. Only time will tell us who is right and who is wrong in these expectations. 

At the same time, neither Vladimir Putin, nor Joe Biden is interested in an uncontrolled confrontation with political risks and economic costs going through the roof. No matter what they say publicly, both feel vulnerable in the rapidly changing world, where Russia and the United States are getting smaller and weaker - at least, in relative terms. Unsurprisingly, in Geneva they focused on strategic arms control and stability as the prime area for selective engagement. Neither side would like to see the New START turning into the last bilateral agreement in the nuclear field. Both should be concerned about new developments in military technologies including space, cyber, autonomous lethal systems, hyper sonic and so on. Both should like to engage third nuclear powers in this way or another into their future bilateral agreements. 

The decision to launch negotiations on the post-New START arms control agenda was an important first step on a long road to a renewed strategic arms control model. It will be a bumpy road for sure. Moscow and Washington have diverging arms control priorities and even visions. The Russian side would prefer to focus on strategic systems - both nuclear and conventional. The US side prioritizes nuclear weapons - both strategic and nonstrategic. US and Russian approaches to demilitarization of space are not any closer to each other and the sides disagree even more on cyber and AI. American BMD systems in Europe and Russian tactical nukes will complicate a search for a compromise even further. Negotiators cannot go for low hanging fruits in the post-New START arms control, because there are no low-hanging fruits left. Still, the resumption of the US-Russian strategic dialogue is good news not only for the two countries, but also for the international community at large. 

The resumption of the US-Russian strategic dialogue is good news not only for the two countries, but also for the international community at large. 

Could Moscow and Washington agree on common approaches to burning regional crises? Are there opportunities for selective engagement in some of these crises? The answer to the first question is mostly negative. With few exceptions - like arguably Yemen or North Korea -, there are fundamental disagreements between Moscow and Washington regarding the origins, the driving forces and the preferable outcomes of regional crises.

However, these disagreements should not always prevent Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden from engaging each other into situational deals in places like Afghanistan or even Syria. Apparently, the two Presidents had no time in Geneva to discuss any of such deals in detail. However, one could imagine, for instance, an extension of the UN Security Council Resolution 2533 on the humanitarian assistance to the population of Idlib going across the Turkish-Syrian border, in exchange for a US agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus. This would not make Putin and Biden see eye to eye on the Syrian settlement, but it would definitely help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. 

Regretfully, such situational deals are much more difficult to reach in Europe than elsewhere. The United States is not in a position to make Russia change its current attitude on the situation in Belarus and to convince the Russian leadership to push harder for radical constitutional reforms. The US leverage for dealing with Alexander Lukashenko is very limited; very few sticks remain available, and the carrots are practically nonexistent. 

Ukraine is an even harder nut to crack in the US-Russian bilateral framework: Washington is not a part of the Normandy process; it has not signed the Minsk Agreements and bears no responsibility for their implementation. No doubt, Joe Biden reconfirmed the official US position on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and assured Kyiv that the door to the NATO Alliance remains open. Nevertheless, the current status quo in Donbas appears to be, if not a desirable option, an acceptable one for the Biden Administration. Besides, it also seems that Ukraine, despite all the hopes and expectations in Kyiv, is not on the very top of Biden’s foreign policy priorities list. Washington has nothing against outsourcing the Donbas problem to its European allies. 

China, on the contrary, is not something that Joe Biden can easily outsource to anyone else. In a way, the Geneva meeting with Vladimir Putin appeared to be a dress rehearsal for a future meeting of President Biden with Chairman Xi. Though it remains unclear whether they discussed China in Geneva at any length, the shadow of Beijing was undoubtedly present in the rooms of Villa La Grange. The Biden Administration should have no illusions nurtured by its predecessors about the United States being in a position to deconstruct the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership and to bring Moscow to the "right side of history". The odds are that this partnership will only grow stronger under the US pressure on the two countries. However, the Biden Administration might well cautiously explore potential wrinkles in the Moscow-Beijing friendship. For instance, it might incentivize Russia to team up with the United States in the Arctic Council, to contain the Chinese advance to the Arctic region. Or it might cautiously encourage the Russian-Indian defense cooperation to help India balance the rising Chinese military power in Asia. 

As for Vladimir Putin, he should be fully aware of the growing asymmetries in relations between Moscow and Beijing. Probably, in his ideal world, Russia should become a global swing state capable of balancing the emerging US-Chinese geopolitical competition. But the Russian President should have no illusions either: in the observable future, Russia cannot possibly claim the role of an honest broker between the two superpowers - its relations with Washington are so poor that it does not even make any sense to talk about a US-Russia-China geopolitical triangle; it is rather a China-Russia informal alliance against the United States. 

Vladimir Putin’s post summit press conference leaves no doubts as to where the Russian leader sees the red lines for his discussion with the US President. There are no "forbidden topics" as far as international politics is concerned. However, Putin once again demonstrated his utmost sensitivity to what he perceives as potential interference into Russia’s domestic affairs. There is absolutely no appetite to discuss human rights, political opposition or the fate of imprisoned Alexey Navalny with Joe Biden - or with any other Western statesperson.

No comprehensive solution for the "interference" problem between Moscow and Washington is likely to emerge anytime soon.

In Putin’s mindset, the United States has no legal or even moral right to raise these issues, given the many problems with the US political system that manifested themselves over the last couple of years.

This sensitivity explains why the Russian side was so persistent in its attempts to engage the US into some kind of bilateral consultations on cyber. While in the United States, they consider the alleged Russian cyber-attacks as unprovoked unilateral hostile acts, within the Russian leadership there is a genuine anxiety about what it believes to be a systematic and large-scale US interference into the Russian political life, including multifaceted activities of American media, foundations, NGOs, think tanks and so on. With elections in the Russian State Duma scheduled for September, this anxiety is likely to get even higher within the next three months. No comprehensive solution for the "interference" problem between Moscow and Washington is likely to emerge anytime soon, but the US agreement to start working with Russia on cyber matters is already a significant victory for Russian diplomacy. 

The two sides agreed in Geneva to bring their respective ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow. This is a necessary, but not a sufficient precondition for restoring the diplomatic dimension of the relationship. Just like even the best generals cannot accomplish much without their armies, ambassadors cannot serve as a substitution for the Embassy staff. Anatoly Antonov and John Sullivan are not going to stamp visas, manage media relations, meet with mid-level local bureaucrats and do many other things on their own: they will need their people back. 

At his press-conference in Geneva, President Biden argued that the next couple of months will make it clear whether the new model of US-Russian relations can work or not. One can only hope that it will, demonstrating the ability of two very different nations to find a mutually agreeable modus operandi

If the United States and Russia are successful, their experience could be applied to a broader multilateral framework. In a way, the US-Russian puzzle is nothing but a specific reflection of a universal challenge that the contemporary international system faces today. On the one hand, the world is getting more and more diverse, and the West no longer has the monopoly on setting the rules or on pointing humankind into the right direction. On the other hand, the world, the setbacks of globalization notwithstanding, is moving towards more interconnectedness and more interdependence. The need to make everybody play by the rules is greater than it has ever been.

Therefore, we have to define rules in such a way that they will be generally acceptable to liberal democracies and to illiberal autocracies, to mature and to emerging economies, to great and to small nations, to the West and to the East, to the global North and to the global South. These rules could be less than perfect; they will not exclude competition and even confrontation. But they should be perceived by international players as fair and legitimate. If we define such rules, we will enjoy more stability, albeit at a low level. If we do not, we might get into a shipwreck of an epic scale.    


Copyright: Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP

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