Russia plays down hopes of progress and demands respect at Putin-Biden summit
Moscow says arms control and cyber security on agenda next week as US allies look on warily
US president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will hold talks next Wednesday in Geneva. Photograph: Jim Watson, Grigory Dukor/AFP via Getty Images
Russia has said it expects no major breakthrough in next week’s summit with the United States, and warned that its president Vladimir Putin will not tolerate any lectures on democracy and human rights from US counterpart Joe Biden.
Biden will go into next Wednesday’s talks in Geneva with not only US national interests in mind, but carrying the hopes of Ukraine’s leaders, the beleaguered opposition movement in Belarus and Russia’s own pro-democracy activists, all of whom expect him to fight their corner with Moscow’s leader of 21 years.
Analysts say Putin will give no ground to domestic critics or on Russia’s perceived interests in neighbouring states, however, and wants to focus instead on questions of strategic stability, arms control and cyber security – while viewing the summit itself as a victory that undermines western efforts to isolate and weaken him.
“We have no raised expectations, no illusions that some breakthroughs are coming. But there is an objective need for an exchange of views at the highest level about what threats are seen by Russia and the United States, as the two biggest nuclear powers,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.
“I hope those who deal with the Russian Federation will assess Russia’s actions, interests and position – our red lines, ultimately – and learn from past mistakes, and refrain from holding dialogue solely from the position of seeking hegemony in world affairs.”
Lavrov said better Russia-US relations could only be built on principles of “equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs”, and he highlighted arms control as an area of “common interest” before the summit.
“We maintain rather intensive contacts on what approach should be made to this aspect of world politics . . . Everything that influences strategic stability must be a subject matter for discussion,” he insisted.
Shortly after Biden became president in January, he and Putin agreed to extend the 2010 New START nuclear arms control treaty, which limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the US and Russia and the fleets of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that could deliver them.
Since that deal, US-Moscow relations have faced a fresh blizzard of disputes, from Russia’s jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, its support for Belarus’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists and a menacing military build-up near Ukraine, to Russian hackers being blamed for a string of cyber attacks on US targets.
Experts say the summit could deliver a commitment to intensify US-Russia talks on arms control, and agreement that US and Russian ambassadors return to each other’s capitals after a diplomatic spat sparked by Biden saying in March that he regarded Putin as “a killer”.
Lavrov said cyber security would certainly be on the summit agenda, as Moscow faces international scrutiny for its failure to respond to major hacks with potential links to Russia – including the recent ransomware attack on Ireland’s health service.
Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov said Moscow is using the issue of cyber threats to create leverage with the West, and “wants quite desperately for the Americans and Europeans to reach out to Moscow and start bilateral talks” on the subject.
“You now have more and more countries asking themselves the big question: ‘Probably we need to start talking to Russia because we are having all these attacks, originating from Russia, and we need a way to talk to local law enforcement agencies there,’” Soldatov told The Irish Times recently.
“This is exactly what the Kremlin wants – that western countries come to Moscow and talk on terms proposed by the Kremlin. With more and more [hacking] incidents like those we have seen in the US and Ireland, you have more and more voices in [western] law enforcement saying: “Well, it is at least worth a try.’”
Soldatov said that despite their robust rejection of western criticism and often pugnacious manner, Russian officials “are not really happy to been seen as the thugs in the room”.
“They want to be legitimate, they want to be respected,” he explained. “This is very, very important for Russian officials.”
Kiev will be closely watching the summit for how hard Biden will push Putin to end Russia’s seven-year occupation of Crimea and a war in eastern Ukraine that has killed 14,000 people since 2014.
Kiev was disappointed by the White House’s recent decision to waive sanctions on the main firm behind the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany – which the US, Kiev and several EU states see as a powerful political tool for Moscow in eastern Europe – and by Biden’s agreement to meet Putin before holding face-to-face talks with his embattled Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Biden sought to assuage Ukraine’s concerns with a call to Kiev on Monday.
“President Biden was able to tell President Zelenskiy that he will stand up firmly for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and its aspirations as we go forward,” said US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“And he also told President Zelenskiy that he looks forward to welcoming him to the White House here in Washington this summer”.
Sullivan also laid out why the summit was important, amid criticism that Biden was handing an easy propaganda prize to Putin.
“At the end of the day, what we are looking to do is for the two presidents to be able to send a clear signal . . . to their teams on questions of strategic stability, so that we can make progress in arms control and other nuclear areas to reduce tension and instability in that aspect of the relationship,” Sullivan said.
“And then, second, being able to look President Putin in the eye and say, ‘This is what America’s expectations are. This is what America stands for. This is what America is all about.’”