Expectations regarding the summit between Presidents Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva last Wednesday (June 16) were set quite low (see EDM, June 14, 17), but the media hype was considerable—and both suited the Russian leader just fine. Putin enjoyed being at the center of global political attention and did not have to do much to earn that position. Russian pundits duly praised the tense face-to-face as a great success, focusing on the presumed confirmation of Russia’s status as a world power on par with the United States (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 16). Putin modestly refrained from describing the meeting as a triumph and opted to complement Biden’s performance and professionalism, thus contradicting the prevalent Russian propaganda discourse that routinely accuses his counterpart of feebleness (Kommersant, June 18).
This satisfaction was not diminished by the fact that Biden cut the discussion a good hour shorter than scheduled and warned about “devastating” consequences should Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny die in prison (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 17). It is not a problem for the Kremlin to keep Navalny alive behind bars, even as persecution of his networks was deliberately hardened on the eve of the summit. That crackdown clearly did not derail the renewed US-Russian dialogue (Svoboda.org, June 18). Rather, the self-congratulatory satisfaction is more likely to be prematurely broken off by Moscow’s gradual realization that Biden granted Putin the moment of pivotal importance in order to stabilize the confrontation, so that Russia—if it, indeed, abstains from new aggressive escapades—becomes irrelevant on the international stage (Russiancouncil.ru, June 18).
New talks on strategic stability covering a wide range of strategic and sub-strategic weapons cannot possibly yield tangible results for many months to come (see EDM, February 17), but they implicitly constrain Putin from freely wielding nuclear instruments of policy, as has been his habit (Novaya Gazeta, June 11). In turn, the contentious consultations on cybersecurity matters can turn out to be both superficial and frustrating as Moscow is set to stick to its pattern of denials, while remaining a “safe haven” for hackers who might be inclined to see Biden’s “off limits” list of 16 critical infrastructure sectors as an interesting challenge (Kommersant, June 19). These gangs of hackers are only loosely controlled by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other Russian special services, which are not necessarily content to follow political guidelines on stabilizing relations with the US (Moscow Echo, June 15). The empowered siloviki are keen to exploit the unmitigated hostility against the West in order to accumulate more power at home, and cyberspace (about which Putin has only vague impressions) has become for them the domain of choice for executing high-impact proactive moves at negligible risk for assets under their control (Znak.com, June 16).
Biden took pains to explain that the next cyberattack would not go unpunished, but Putin appears to believe that repeatedly and unflinchingly disavowing any role provides sufficient protection (TASS, June 14). His personal point of reference seems to be the ostensible success with rejecting charges of Russian involvement in the military aggression in eastern Ukraine, which is de facto reconfirmed every time Putin’s Western counterparts agree that the Minsk agreement is the only framework for managing the conflict—as happened again in Geneva (Izvestia, June 17). Ukraine remains an irreducible source of antagonism in Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union are now preparing strategic guidelines on containing Russia’s attempts to dismember and destabilize this neighbor-state; and Moscow views such efforts as a direct threat (Kommersant, June 17).
In Geneva, Biden saw no need to elaborate on the transatlantic allies’ well-articulated stance on the Ukrainian crisis, but he will presumably issue stronger reassurances to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the latter’s visit to Washington, DC, in July (RBC, June 18). Putin can pretend that his attempt at drawing a “red line” across Ukraine’s request to receive a NATO Membership Action Plan was not rebuffed; but every modest step Kyiv makes westward undercuts this pretense (Current Time, June 17). Characteristically, Russian mainstream media amplified the rumor that US military aid to Ukraine was frozen, but then it had to make “clarifications” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 19). The moment is fast approaching when it will no longer be possible for Germany and France (or even the US, for that matter) to maintain that the Minsk deal provides a useful platform for resolving the deadlock in Ukraine’s Donbas. Yet for Putin—who never had any intention of implementing his side of the deal—any reopening of that welter-compromise would signify a major setback (Moscow Times, June 2).
The theme most conspicuous for its absence from the “positive” conversations in Geneva was China. And while Putin is perfectly aware that Biden struggles to overcome multiple cleavages with European allies on countering the challenge from the rising Asia-Pacific contender, the Russian side made no attempts to play on these differences (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 17). Putin tries to tread carefully here and refrains from emphasizing the purported strength of Russia’s strategic partnership with China in order to gain advantage in confronting the newly but tentatively united West (Carnegie.ru, June 16). His personal ties with President Xi Jinping have notably slackened since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, and his next visit to Beijing is only provisionally scheduled for autumn (TASS, June 14). Keeping sufficient distance from the expanding contestation between China and the West might seem like a smart strategy, but its flip side is that Russia cannot count on any Chinese support in Moscow’s forthcoming tests of resolve in the European theater (Valdaiclub.com, June 3). One such test is growing progressively tougher due to the actions of Belarus’s autocratic leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who finds it useful to provoke the EU and the US into enforcing further sanctions in order to obtain greater support from Moscow (Kommersant, June 19).
Putin may presume that he has outperformed yet another resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave; but in fact, he has subscribed to the proposition that both parties should focus on minding their respective domestic business. For Biden, this is exactly what his administration’s busy agenda of promoting the recovery requires; however, in Russia, the feeble economic rehabilitation has been cut short by the arrival of yet another coronavirus wave, and the deepening of discontent at home cannot be checked by toughening repressions. A solution for such an erosion of Putin’s political base is typically sought in mobilizing “patriotic” feelings for projecting power abroad. In Geneva, Moscow was spared new sanctions or lectures—but was put on notice regarding such quasi-solutions. One predictable feature of Russia’s behavior is that, given half a chance, it will disregard this warning; discouraging this propensity will, therefore, be a key measure of the US’s reclaimed leadership.