After all, Putin’s core foreign policy goal is the fracturing of US political stability and prestige. He is accused of meddling in two elections to help ex-President Donald Trump — the top homegrown threat to US democracy.
Biden will hold the summit at a time when multiple factors are pushing US democracy to a breaking point: Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, Republican state efforts to make it harder to vote and easier to rig elections, and the GOP’s refusal to hold the former President to account for the Capitol Insurrection. The chaos, much of which was encouraged by Putin himself in misinformation operations targeting American politics, will play into the Russian leader’s conceit that the US is weakened, turning on itself and hardly a beacon for the world.
Biden united the West behind him before the talks
The talks, on neutral Swiss soil, are the culmination of Biden’s first foreign trip as President, which he used to reinvigorate European alliances battered by Trump and to invoke a new struggle by the West for its political values and future.
The United States finds itself between the remnants of the last Cold War with Moscow, which lacks the Soviet Union’s former power but retains the capacity to wreak havoc on US interests, and a building new superpower confrontation with China — another grave threat to the primacy of the West.
The buildup to the summit has meant that Biden’s entire tour — so far, a qualified success — will be judged on his clash with one of the most cunning global leaders, whose on-camera smirks underscore his outmaneuvering of past US presidents used to a more conventional geopolitical game.
The run-up to the summit has seen huge expectations-setting and robust exchanges between the leaders. Biden earlier this year agreed Putin was “a killer” and brands him an unrepentant autocrat. Putin has denied all knowledge of hacking and ransomware attacks against US government, private businesses and vital infrastructure that have been blamed on Russian intelligence agencies and criminal gangs. And with classic false equivalency, he has compared political prisoners like Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny — a victim of an apparent poisoning plot by the state — to Capitol insurrection suspects charged by US courts.
Biden’s opponents at home, in a narrative picked up by his traveling press pack, have been wondering why — given Russian belligerence and low US hopes for “deliverables” — the meeting is taking place at all.
Yet the greatest success of the summit may be what it stopped from happening, not what it achieves on Wednesday. Biden surprised many in Washington by suggesting the talks. But the invitation came at a time when Russian troops were massed on Ukraine’s border, with many observers fearing a full-scale invasion and with the imprisoned Navalny apparently close to death after being denied medical treatment.
The President’s carrot offered Putin a platform he craves alongside the US commander in chief that comes with the implied respect for Moscow some other recent US leaders have discarded, and that will be maximized by Russia’s propaganda machine.
“This meeting was done in part to save Ukraine, to save Alexey Navalny, so that’s already something. At least a short-term gain,” Evelyn Farkas, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Tuesday.
No ‘reset’ but hopes for stability
Biden says a goal of the summit is to test whether Putin is willing to agree to a more stable and predictable relationship with the US. The US President, who has long experience with Putin’s cantankerous behavior, has no desire for a “reset” with Moscow. But lowering the tone could produce progress on common interests like Syria, Afghanistan, climate change and the Iran nuclear agreement.
“He is looking for some kind of predictable, stable relationship. The question is whether you can get that with Putin,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Putin sees that in his actions, not only does he achieve what he wants and creates instability in the world. There has to be a clear message that there is going to be a consequence for that.”
But even Biden’s limited goals set a high bar. Putin’s strongman Kremlin rule for more than 20 years needs to denigrate democracies like the US to render his own rule more attractive to Russians.
A change of tack toward the US would require him to crack down on cyberattacks and to halt propaganda and misinformation campaigns intended to damage US democracy. It would mean a former KGB officer — who saw the demise of the Soviet Union as a tragedy — giving up strategic pressure by Moscow in its former sphere of influence, including Ukraine.
Whether through coercion or diplomatic carrots, Biden knows the US may simply lack the leverage to change Putin’s zero-sum game.
“Autocrats have enormous power, and they don’t have to answer to a public, and the fact is that it may very well be if I respond in kind, as I will, then it doesn’t dissuade him — he wants to keep going,” the President said at the weekend.
Biden also says he will take the opportunity to convey to Putin the kinds of consequences the US will bring for continued assaults on American interests — including if Russia refuses to crack down on ransomware attacks on staples of US life, like food production, transport and pipelines.
The most glaring danger in US-Russia relations is rooted in emerging cyber confrontation. While each adversary has the power to destroy the world, nuclear arms are regulated and systems exist to deter escalation. Safeguards are nowhere near as sophisticated in the relatively new area of cyber warfare. Any US response to Russian provocations — and there may well have been secret reprisals — risks tipping a showdown out of control.
“We are prepared to take responsive actions that are seen and unseen,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters.
Political stakes for the Biden and Putin meeting have been spiked to new levels every day of the President’s European tour. But paradoxically, the rising heat may ease Biden’s political exposure at home.
With the world expecting a contentious head-to-head, any outcome of the summit that doesn’t include open conflict can be spun as a success.
And given the lack of a joint news conference in Geneva, the US President will have the chance to characterize himself as laying down the law to Putin without being undermined in real time by the Russian leader.
Biden will also be flattered by comparison with one of the most extraordinary moments in the colorful history of post-Cold War US and Russia relations: Trump’s fawning behavior toward Putin at their Helsinki summit.
The then-President astounded his own team and the rest of the world by publicly taking the poker-faced Putin’s denial of election interference at face value. His comment effectively took the word of a former Soviet intelligence officer over that of the US espionage community. And it renewed frenzied speculation about the mysterious relationship between Trump and the Russians.
However the summit turns out, the heavy political, diplomatic and historical forces weighing down the US and Russia relationship are unlikely to be eased. There’s no expectation that Biden and Putin will walk away after setting the tone for an era of rapprochement, as President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did in Geneva in 1985. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case.
“Undoubtably (Putin) will test us after this summit,” Farkas said.