Biden-Putin Summit Failed to Reverse Downturn in Bilateral Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 125

(Source: UPI)

At their June 16, 2021, summit in Geneva, Presidents Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed to return their previously recalled ambassadors: Anatoly Antonov to Washington and John Sullivan to Moscow. Antonov stayed in Moscow for over three months in an unprecedented demonstration of anger. Sullivan was pressed by the Russian authorities to leave. In addition, both presidents agreed to form multiple joint working groups to deescalate tensions and solve outstanding problems in arms control, the manning of respective diplomatic missions, cyber security and exchange of prisoners (see EDM, June 17).

The working groups have met while diplomats discuss ways to scale back tit-for-tat expulsions. The exchange of prisoners has apparently been discussed, but none have yet been released. All other working group discussions seem equally deadlocked. The diplomatic crisis between Russia and the United States has actually worsened since the Geneva summit. Last April, Putin signed an ukaz (decree) designating the US an “unfriendly nation,” and its embassy in Moscow was denied the right to hire local staff. By August 1, the US embassy was forced to fire all its remaining locally employed staff, with the exception of security guards. The US had traditionally employed relatively large numbers of locals in Moscow to perform different technical jobs, since they cost much less than Americans. But now, Ambassador Sullivan complains he has had to fire his secretary, and the US embassy is largely dysfunctional: Its staff, which in 2016 had some 1,200 employees (mostly locals), is now ten times smaller—120—with only US citizens left (Kommersant, August 4).

The Russian embassy in Washington and its mission to the United Nations, in New York, never employed local staff for security reasons—and because Russian plumbers and drivers cost less than Americans. The embassy in Washington has a staff of some 300, plus families (wives are often hired as embassy support personnel). The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has indicated it is ready to issue some 180 visas for the US side to bring in additional staff to Moscow to do technical support work in its embassy, but it demands that Washington, in turn, begin issuing similar numbers of visas to Russian diplomats and members of their families. The diplomatic visas of some 60 Russian diplomats in the US have expired, and Moscow has accused the US authorities of refusing to prolong them. Twenty-four Russian diplomats in the US who hold expired visas have reportedly been put on notice to leave by September 1, 2021. The foreign ministry fears if these Russian diplomats go, replacing them may be virtually impossible because the US is not issuing new visas (Interfax, August 5).

Moscow says it has offered Washington a “zero option”—rescinding all diplomatic tit-for-tat measures taken since 2016. But under this status quo ante bellum restoration, Moscow adamantly demands the return of its two country retreats (dachas) on US soil, one in Long Island the other in Maryland, belonging to the Russian UN mission and the Washington embassy, respectively. These properties were used by Russian diplomats for recreation and, according to US authorities, also for spying. The Russian dachas were taken over in December 2016 by the outgoing administration of Barack Obama; and the Biden administration (like its predecessor, the Donald Trump administration) is reluctant to even discuss the dacha issue, demanding that Moscow sell them. Meanwhile, Moscow accuses the US of “violating international law” (, May 19).

The Russian foreign ministry has also offered a “step-by-step” alternative détente, whereby both sides would issue visas in a tit-for-tat manner. But the Russian authorities complain the US is not responding to this proposal (Kommersant, August 4). With their embassies increasingly dysfunctional, bilateral diplomatic dialogue seems to be deadlocked. According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “It is wrong to describe Russia and the US as partners. They are opponents” (Interfax, July 28).

The first US-Russian discussions on “strategic stability” (arms control) happened in Geneva on July 28, 2021. No one expected any swift progress; and the post-meeting summary by Russia’s chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, was gloomy. According to Ryabkov the Biden team representatives are not as vocal as their Trump predecessors on bringing China into the arms control talks, though Washington is still quite much focused on China and its rapidly growing nuclear potential. Russia is, apparently, not all that concerned. Ryabkov noted that there is “zero possibility” of China in any form joining the US-Russian arms control talks. Moscow’s negotiator insists new Russian nuclear superweapons, which Putin has been promoting since 2018, as well as the thousands of Russian tactical (non-strategic) warheads and delivery vehicles not covered by the existing New START arms control treaty Putin and Biden prolonged in February 2021 for five more years, are off limits and will not be discussed in Geneva. Moscow will not make any concessions or accommodate any US concerns if Washington does not take steps forward and offer some concessions first. Any new US hypersonic non-nuclear missiles Washington might deploy in Europe will be considered nuclear first-strike weapons, and Moscow will respond “adequately.” By developing and deploying new powerful nuclear weapons, Moscow is seeking absolute security guarantees against any and all potential enemies; it is not ready to discuss US “concerns.” Though the goal of “100 percent national security,” according to Ryabkov, has been achieved by Russian nuclear deployments today, it must still be extended into the perpetual future (Interfax, July 29).

In 2009, the Obama administration tried to “reset” relations with Moscow, using arms control as its main tool toward that end. The “reset” policy, of which then–Vice President Biden was a part, helped produce the New START arms control treaty. But it failed to prevent East-West relations from plunging into the present new cold war, which increasingly teeters on the brink of a real hot war on the periphery of Europe or in other places (see EDM, February 11, 18). New START did not stop the expansion of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals either.

The previous Cold War ended because Moscow decided it was counterproductive to continue a confrontation with the West. Effective arms control and massive nuclear disarmament were the results of that decision. Arms control and disarmament are the results of a genuine political détente and never the other way around. Today, there in no détente in sight.