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15 June 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 9:46am

Can Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin find agreement in Geneva?

The Biden administration views Russia as a declining power. China is now the US’s real global rival. 

By Ido Vock

China is a “challenge” but Russia is a “threat” to Euro-Atlantic security. That’s according to a communiqué issued by Nato after a summit of the alliance held in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday 14 June. 

That broad theme is likely to carry over when US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva on Wednesday 16 June. It will not be their first encounter – Biden infamously, in his retelling, told Putin “I don’t think you have a soul” during a 2011 meeting at the Kremlin – but it will be the first since Biden took office in January.  

Biden is in Europe for his first foreign trip as president, having attended the G7 Summit this past weekend. Although the optics of the summit were a refreshing departure from the Donald Trump years, Jeremy Cliffe wrote yesterday that in terms of the substance, the G7 epitomised the new age of “Westishness”. Similarly, the tone of Biden’s summit with Putin is likely to be different to the one struck two years ago, when Biden’s predecessor contradicted US intelligence agencies and defended his Russian counterpart over claims of interference in the 2016 US election. 

It is no secret that relations between the US and Russia are, in a word, glacial. From an arguable high point in the mid-1990s after the collapse of the USSR, tensions have deteriorated, reaching a nadir when Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014. The US and Russia have since found themselves battling for influence in conflicts around the world, most notably in Syria, where Putin’s steadfast military backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime helped prop up Russia’s most reliable Middle Eastern ally.  

[See also: The G7 shows the West endures, but is not rising to the scale of its challenges]

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Russia’s view of most of its former Soviet neighbours’ sovereignty as essentially limited and conditional (the concept the Russians call the “near abroad”) has long riled the US, which backs pro-Western governments on Russia’s borders such as Georgia and Ukraine. The Americans see their actions as helping nascent democracies exercise their sovereignty. The Kremlin, however, believes former Soviet states aligning with the US threaten its security and represent an encroachment on what should be its sphere of influence. These profoundly different world-views are unlikely to change anytime soon.  

Tensions have escalated over the past few months, with the US imposing sanctions on Russia, Biden calling Putin a “killer” and tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. If both leaders can agree to a step such as reinstating their respective ambassadors, for instance, the summit might help smooth the path towards the “stable, predictable relationship” Biden has said he wants with Russia. 

Recent high-profile cyberattacks linked to Russia on American companies are another point of contention that could be raised. The Colonial Pipeline, which reportedly carries nearly half of the East Coast’s supply of petrol and other fuels, was taken offline last month by an attack linked to a hacker group the FBI believes to be based somewhere in eastern Europe, possibly Russia. A sophisticated attack on SolarWinds, an American technology company, which compromised confidential data belonging to at least 18,000 users, is likewise believed to be linked to Russian state-backed actors. Agreement is unlikely to be forthcoming: in an interview this week, Putin denied any link between cyberattacks on America and Russia, saying: “Where is the proof? It’s becoming farcical.” 

Yet there are tentative signs the two countries could still come to arrangements on individual issues. Putin attended Biden’s “Earth Day” summit in April and instructed Russian officials to lower greenhouse gas emissions, despite having been sceptical in the past about the existence of man-made climate change. In February, Washington and Moscow extended the New START nuclear treaty, a cornerstone of global arms control. 

“There is a very clear push from the Biden administration to have this two-track strategy, where the US is cooperating with Russia on things that are critical in terms of delivering on the ‘predictability and stability’ aspiration. The set of issues which are a win-win for both parties isn’t as big as it should be, but it does include issues such as arms control,” Leslie Vinjamuri, the director of the US and the Americas Programme at the think tank Chatham House, told me.  

The bigger picture is that the Biden administration views Russia as a declining power which, lacking genuine international heft, “[lashes] out where it can, causing mischief and sowing discord”, as the Guardian’s Rafael Behr writes. China, by contrast, is now the US’s real global rival. 

[See also: Why tensions remain between Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron]

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