In July 2018, then US president Donald Trump held an extraordinary joint press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki following a bilateral meeting. Asked if he believed the Russian president rather than his own intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump went with Russia.
The public put-down of his own government agencies was seen by some as traitorous, sparking outrage even from Republicans. Across the board, it was regarded as one of the lowest points of the Trump presidency.
When President Joe Biden meets Putin in Geneva today, there are unlikely to be fireworks. But the meeting between the two is highly significant nonetheless.
Biden, unlike Trump, is armed with experience as he prepares for the meeting. He last met Putin in 2011, and, as vice-president, led the US response to the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
The president has been preparing for today’s one-on-one meeting, including analysis on Putin’s rhetorical strategies, with former ambassadors and Trump Russia adviser Fiona Hill.
Since arriving in Europe for the weekend G7 summit and the Nato and EU meetings this week, Biden has cast his first trip abroad as president as an opportunity to show the benefits of democracy, underlining his view of the international world order as a contest between democratic forms of government and autocracies such as China and Russia.
But while he is harking back to the rhetoric of the cold war, in reality Biden is seeking a much more transactional relationship with Russia. While the ideological rivalry is still there, Biden’s objective is to work with Russia where he can.
‘Stable and predictable’
A more “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia is how US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and secretary of state Antony Blinken have put it repeatedly.
Or as Biden said himself at Monday’s Nato summit in Brussels: “We should decide where it’s in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to co-operate, and see if we can do that – and the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.”
Cyber and information warfare will be a key focus of the discussion
Among the topics of discussion will be a replacement for the current nuclear arms control treaty – Russia and the United States still control about 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and Moscow has been modernising and diversifying its nuclear arsenal.
Russia’s human rights violations, particularly the detention of opposition figure Alexei Navalny which prompted sanctions from the US, will be raised by the Americans, as well as Putin’s support for Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko who diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk last month in order to detain journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend.
Cyber and information warfare will be a key focus of the discussion. As set out in the joint statement agreed by Nato leaders on Monday, European countries and the US are increasingly concerned about Russia’s sophistication in this area. In their joint communique Nato leaders accused Russia of attempted interference in elections, malicious cyberactivities and turning a blind eye to cybercriminals operating from its territory.
From the Russian perspective, much of the importance of this meeting lies in its symbolism
In particular, the US is reeling from the ransomware attacks on the Colonial Pipeline which carries fuel through the east of the country and a cyberattack on a major meat-processing conglomerate. Sullivan also specifically mentioned the recent attack on the HSE in Ireland during comments to journalists en route to England last week, having discussed the issue during his meeting three weeks ago with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
The threat posed by more traditional warfare will also feature, in particular the continued presence of Russian troops at Ukraine’s border and repeated violations of Nato airspace.
Foreign policy challenges
But the US will want to work with Russia on other foreign policy challenges, for example its withdrawal from Afghanistan in the coming months and the ongoing conflict in Syria where Biden will press Putin on the need to keep open humanitarian aid corridors.
From the Russian perspective, much of the importance of this meeting lies in its symbolism. Biden has faced some criticism for granting Putin a one-on-one meeting. After all, he called him a “killer” in March, prompting Russia to recall its ambassador and Washington to summon its representative in Moscow for “consultations”. The fact that Biden is giving Putin a stage will give the Russian leader a domestic boost. In terms of deliverables, Russia wants an easing of US sanctions that have been in place in various forms since the 2014 Ukraine crisis and have had significant economic impact, but a development on this is unlikely.
Ironically, however, while the Putin-Biden meeting may flatter Moscow, the reality is that the Biden administration’s real focus is elsewhere. One of the key takeaways from Biden’s week-long visit to Europe is that the US now clearly sees China as the major strategic threat to the west, with even Nato shifting its focus to Beijing. Today’s meeting between Biden and Putin may go down in the annals as another high-profile summit between a US and Russian leader. But in reality the first meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will prove to be the most important foreign meeting of his presidency.
Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent