The smooth sailing and genuine bonhomie of United States President Joseph Biden’s proceeding European tour will grow much more tense at the last event—the Wednesday (June 16) meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva. Biden comes to this no-themes-barred face-to-face armed with conclusions on how to meet the challenges emanating from Russia that he collected during his in-depth discussions at the back-to-back G7, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and United States–European Union summits, collectively aimed at delivering a strong boost to Western solidarity. Moscow commentators, while downplaying expectations for the Geneva meeting, nonetheless portray it as the culmination of intense international activities kicked off by Biden’s initiative in mid-April (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 9). For weeks, the Kremlin had played a delaying game on accepting the invitation as well as demurred on any decisions regarding the timing and place of the rendezvous (indicating its preferences for the beginning of Biden’s tour and for Helsinki); but clearly, Moscow was all along quite keen to see Putin’s pivotal status confirmed via the high-level sit-down with the US president (see EDM, June 10).
Both sides engaged in voluminous signaling of their respective intentions regarding the three-hour-long meeting, the agenda of which remains unusually open; and the content of this messaging is remarkably disagreeable (Kommersant, June 10). Biden promises to let Putin know “what I want him to know” about the consequences of Russia’s “harmful activities”—hardly a congenial conversation opener (Kommersant, June 11). Putin, in turn, praised former President Donald Trump as an “extraordinarily talented” person and belittled Biden as a “professional politician,” while shrugging off the latter’s infamous branding of him as a “killer” (Izvestia, June 12). The two seasoned leaders certainly have already had ample opportunity to measure up one another. And their mutual desire not to grant the opponent even the slightest opportunity to claim the upper hand clashes with the summit’s purpose of lifting bilateral relations from the “lowest point,” in Putin’s words (RIA Novosti, June 12).
One and perhaps the only area where the two parties could make progress without making concessions is arms control, and the well-prepared agreement on starting multi-track talks on strategic stability matters will likely suffice for both sides to claim the summit a success (Novaya Gazeta, June 11). Putin never misses a chance to boast of the purportedly superior quality of Russia’s strategic arsenal and hypersonic missiles, and he may truly believe to be bargaining with the White House from a position of strength (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 8). Still, the high-profile talks in and of themselves are far more important for Moscow than the results, and the insistence on including missile defense, long-range cruise missiles and various other sub-strategic weapons systems into the complex conversation on strategic stability practically guarantees that it will not yield any practical output anytime soon (Gazeta.ru, June 7).
Russia could have concerns about China’s fast-moving program of modernizing its nuclear arsenal, but it shows no interest in expanding the format of bilateral negotiations and exploring opportunities for engaging Beijing in them (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 7). Moscow is perfectly aware that the geopolitical competition with China is a major new theme for discussions at the G7 and NATO summits, but it has refrained from emphasizing its strategic partnership with Beijing in the run-up to the Geneva meeting, clearly seeking to keep distance from this paramount global contestation (Izvestia, June 4).
Moscow has reasons to assume that the more the Europeans invest in the common anti-China cause with the US, the less capacity the re-forged Western alliance will have for countering Russian pressure on Ukraine (Svoboda.org, June 11). Such calculations stretch the logic of Biden’s initiative on granting Putin the privilege of a personal meeting, which incentivized Russia to reduce military tensions with Ukraine—but also paved the way for Gazprom to complete the construction of the geopolitically divisive Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 9). President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was upset with that deal-making behind Ukraine’s back and was not entirely reassured by the phone conversation with Biden or the invitation to visit Washington in July (Kommersant, June 9). What matters for Moscow is that the question about granting Ukraine the desired Membership Action Plan (MAP) is off the table at the US-NATO summit, which leaves Kyiv vulnerable to new surges of Russian military buildup synchronized with skirmishes in the Donbas war zone (Rosbalt, June 8). The deployment of destroyer USS Laboon in the Black Sea was duly registered by the Russian military command, but the Russian embassy in Washington did not find it worthy of protestations, unlike, for instance, the NATO Baltops or Arctic Challenge exercises (Izvestia, RIA Novosti, June 11).
The most disagreeable topic for the Geneva conversation remains the escalation of repressions in Russia. Biden has indicated he intends to bring up Alexei Navalny, the persecuted leader of the Russian opposition, and Putin has delivered the preemptive response by signing into law the bill criminalizing Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign as an “extremist organization” (Meduza, June 10). Moscow is countering Biden’s pre-announced “tough message” on gross violations of human rights in Russia not only with words regarding the rejection of US “interference” in domestic affairs but also with deeds, such as by criminally charging prominent opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, who was forced to seek refuge in Ukraine. All this is clearly a key part of Putin’s preparations for the meeting (TASS, June 13; Moscow Echo, June 8). As a closure to this exchange, the offer to return the two ambassadors, recalled for consultations on Moscow’s initiative, to their respective posts might be forwarded—and presented as progress achieved through Russia’s firm stance (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 9).
The newly consolidated Western position on containing aggressive Russian behavior is a major asset for Biden in his attempt to impress upon Putin the imperative to curtail his external escapades and stick to a “stable and predictable” course. The problem with this approach is that the Kremlin interprets every concession as a sign of Western disunity and takes every explanation of consequences as an offense. Biden seeks to present his position as tough and reasonable, but his messaging comes across in Moscow as inconsistent and distorted by domestic discord. President Putin is tempted to exploit this apparent handicap and to expose his US counterpart’s temporizing, but he also needs to make the high-profile meeting a success rather than a win. His messaging mixes insincere readiness to cooperate with blunt denials of multiple wrongdoings, so the only predictability Western leaders can count upon is a further malignant mutation of Russia’s autocratic regime, for which military force is the policy instrument of choice (see EDM, May 10).