The Irish Times view on US-Russia relations: managed confrontation

Expectations are low in advance of the meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin will come face-to-face with his fifth US president when he meets Joe Biden in Geneva today. When Putin and Bill Clinton had their first bilateral, in Oslo in 1999, the West still believed the low-key former KGB man could prove a liberalising, reforming partner after the post-Soviet chaos of the Yeltsin years. Those hopes were dashed long ago, and relations have been rocky since Putin's authoritarian turn in the mid-2000s.

Yet even though Russia's structural economic, as well as demographic, problems have diminished it as a rival to the United States, its continuing strategic importance - and, in recent years, its foreign adventurism - have given Washington every reason to work on the relationship. George W Bush famously looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. Barack Obama appealed to his brain, proposing a reset that yielded only modest results and fell into acrimony.

Donald Trump's fawning deference to the strongman in the Kremlin brought a shift in tone and rhetoric towards the Putin regime, but on policy relatively little changed, partly on account of institutional resistance - not least from Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon - to a softer approach.

Neither Biden nor Putin will carry any illusions with them to today’s summit. The new US president, breaking with the Obama-era aversion to public confrontation with Moscow, has called his Russian counterpart a killer and approved the release of a declassified US intelligence report that found Putin had ordered influence operations to hurt Biden’s candidacy in the 2020 election.


Moscow has warned of deteriorating relations, and almost every week has brought new disputes, from Russia's jailing of opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, its support for Belarus's crackdown on pro-democracy activists and a provocative military build-up near Ukraine. In recent weeks Russian hackers have been blamed for a series of cyber-attacks on US targets. Most of these issues are likely to be raised today, but without any real expectation of agreement.

Yet both leaders know that it's in their interests to manage this confrontation. They see scope for further talks on arms control and point to their deal, shortly after Biden took office in January, to extend the 2010 New Start nuclear arms control treaty. On the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, the two capitals are in closer alignment than at any point in the last five years, while each has every reason to cooperate in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

Overall, however, the goal will simply be to establish some stability in a high-stakes relationship fraught with mutual distrust. With Russian-American relations at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union, even that is an ambitious aim.