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

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

National flags of the US and Russia at the waterfront near Villa La Grange ahead of the US-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

National flags of the US and Russia at the waterfront near Villa La Grange ahead of the US-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

 

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.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.