Summitry, contrary to a former British prime minister, is nothing like tennis. The outcome is rarely “game, set and match”. By the wide-eyed standards of Joe Biden’s last four predecessors, all of whom held ill-fated summits with Vladimir Putin, Biden went into this one with low expectations.
There were no illusions about his meeting of minds with the Russian leader, let alone souls. The modesty of Biden’s goal — to stabilise relations with America’s chief military adversary — conveyed a realism that eluded earlier presidents.
All of which is far less exciting for the world media. Biden did not praise Putin’s ability to restore Russian freedom and prosperity, as Bill Clinton did in 2000 shortly after Putin was elected president. Nor did he get a sense of Putin’s soul, as George W Bush claimed in 2001, and trust what he saw. He did not aim for an ambitious “reset” of US-Russia relations, as Barack Obama fatefully did in 2009. Most notoriously Biden’s tone was a million miles from the one-man admiration society Donald Trump brought to Helsinki when he met Putin alone in 2018.
After more than two decades in power, this Russian bear was unlikely to change its habits. Biden’s aim is to coax and cajole Putin into a moderately less dangerous stance. That goal is more difficult than it sounds. At home, Biden faces derision from Republican and some foreign policy specialists for even meeting Putin. The act of sharing a stage with America’s president is seen as an unearned reward for an adversary who sponsors regular cyber attacks on the US, not to mention waging information warfare on western democracy.
“Our adversaries can smell the fear on Biden,” Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, told Fox News prior to the summit. The fact that many such critics had strenuously defended Trump’s Helsinki performance, and his treacly love letters to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, was no inhibition. Consistency is presumably the hobgoblin of lesser minds.
Biden must also manage the politics of impatience in the age of social media. Should his “constant gardening” approach to diplomacy work, it could take years to bear fruit. There would be few mission accomplished moments when it comes to making a fissile US-Russia relationship less toxic.
Time also challenges Biden’s ability to ensure America’s European allies stick to the script. Biden’s counterparts agreed on tough communiqués at the G7 and Nato summits last week. But their willingness to uphold western unity towards Russia is qualified by fears that Biden may only be a one-term president. The age of US foreign policy continuity is over. Will Biden still be in office three and a half years from now? Putin almost certainly will.
The biggest challenge, though, lies in Putin’s actions, which are unpredictable by design. Biden’s overriding foreign policy goal is to rebuff an increasingly assertive China. A key element of Biden’s strategy is to frame the global stakes between the US and China (and Russia, as China’s autocratic lieutenant) in terms of democracy versus autocracy. That is all very well. But America’s friends are watching the direction of US politics with genuine trepidation. Far from banishing the forces of Trumpism, Biden’s victory has hastened their full takeover of the Republican party. To European observers, the world’s most consequential democracy vs autocracy battle may in fact be taking place within the United States.
So how do we measure whether Biden is making progress with Putin? Mostly by things that do not happen, such as further Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine, support for international piracy, including last month’s Ryanair flight diversion to Minsk, and the longevity of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, whose name Putin still refuses to utter. The absence of big cyber attacks on the US, such as the SolarWinds incursion earlier this year, would be another benchmark.
A more ambitious one would be the weakening of Russia-China ties. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser, described it as the “alliance of the aggrieved”. Less adversarial US relations with Russia could loosen the Moscow-Beijing embrace, though that would be a very long shot. For the time being, Biden must make do with modest contrasts. Compared to Putin’s 2018 press conference with Trump, when the Russian leader could not contain his smirk, Putin’s solo press event in Geneva seemed notably subdued.