The auguries for President Joe Biden’s Geneva summit with Vladimir Putin are not propitious. At their first meeting in 2011, Biden said he thought the Russian president had “no soul”. More recently, he agreed with an interviewer’s suggestion that Putin was a “killer”. In a Moscow address in April, Putin warned darkly of unspecified red lines and an “asymmetrical, rapid and harsh” response from Moscow should the west cross them. While expectations are necessarily rock-bottom, however, it makes sense for the two leaders to meet.
Biden has faced criticism even for offering to sit down with Putin. Some argue he is giving Russia’s leader what he wants — a chance to appear an equal to the US president, despite Russia’s misbehaviour of recent years — with nothing in return. China has long supplanted Russia, moreover, as the west’s chief economic and geopolitical rival.
Yet Russia and the US still retain nuclear arsenals that dwarf those of any other country. Putin is determined that the way to project power is as a disrupter of the west — be it through cyber attacks, information warfare, or assassinating opponents. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military meddling in eastern Ukraine and the west’s struggle to counter them have set unfortunate precedents that Beijing will have noted. The resulting suspension of many official and back-channel communications with Moscow creates a dangerous vacuum.
Biden has wisely avoided talk of resets, saying merely that he wants more “stable and predictable” ties with Russia. He should nonetheless make clear to Putin that the door remains open to a new framework for co-operation. This would entail Russia reaffirming, for example, a commitment to the Helsinki accords that assured the inviolability of European borders, and the post-cold war principle that nations can choose their governments, and alliances, by democratic means. It would mean serious engagement with and implementation of the Minsk II agreement and Russian withdrawal from east Ukraine. In return, Moscow could over time retake its place as an important ally in a law-based international order.
A clear-eyed assessment of Russia’s interests might conclude this was preferable to being a junior and somewhat disdained partner to Beijing. Putin is unlikely to agree. He sees free choice for countries such as Ukraine as leading, ineluctably, to their incorporation into western alliances and — despite clear signals from Berlin and Paris that this is not their intention — to what he sees as a hostile Nato expanding to Russia’s borders.
Biden can then warn, however, that the US and the democratic allies with whom he has taken care to rebuild post-Trump bridges on the way to Geneva will not hesitate to hold Moscow to account for further rule-breaking and provocations. Exposing the hollowness of Putin’s position — after some EU leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron have advocated and attempted greater engagement — would give Biden leverage to bind European partners into a more robust and united stance. By signalling recently that Washington is prepared to use the US financial system against wrongdoing by Moscow, Biden has shown that the west has further ammunition in its sanctions armoury.
However frosty the relationship, the Geneva meeting offers a potential chance to launch initiatives useful to both sides in discrete areas such as curbing ransomware crime or beginning to renew the arms control architecture that has been partially dismantled in recent years. In perilous times, jaw-jaw still has some value. But it must be backed with clarity and determination.