In more ways than one, the objective of US President Joe Biden’s meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was the same as what he was attempting to achieve at meetings of the G7 and Nato held earlier this week: to underline that he is not Donald Trump.
In 2018, Trump met Putin in Helsinki, Finland, for the first time. At a joint press conference following the talks, the then-US president slavishly praised the Russian leader. Against the advice of his own intelligence agencies, who had found that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, he insisted: “He just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be”. It was later revealed that Trump went to “extraordinary lengths” to conceal the details of his closed-doors meetings with Putin, which involved just the two men and their translators.
The optics of Biden’s meeting with Putin, held yesterday in a grand 18th-century villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, could not have been more different. Talks, which both sides said focused on topics such as strategic stability, cybersecurity and climate change, appeared to leave both leaders in an upbeat mood. Concrete agreements appear relatively limited. The most notable appears to be that both sides will reinstate their respective ambassadors, who have been out of post since April. They also agreed to a dialogue on strategic stability, intended to limit the risks of conflict spiralling out of control.
Unlike Helsinki, both gave separate press conferences. Putin spoke first, in a drab tent in the grounds of the villa, answering questions from mostly Russian journalists. Looking cheerful, he described the meeting as “constructive”, though he denied Russian responsibility for recent cyberattacks on the US. Questions about Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader and democracy in Russia were batted back with whataboutery, Putin alternatively citing Black Lives Matter and the treatment of the Capitol insurrectionists to justify his crackdown on the “non-systemic opposition”.
“What we saw was disorder, disruption, violations of the law. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don’t want that to happen on our territory and we’ll do our utmost in order to not allow it to happen,” Putin said of the 2020 BLM protests and the 6 January insurrection, chaos which he claimed Navalny seeks to replicate in Russia.
Biden’s press conference, in front of the substantially more picturesque backdrop of Lake Geneva, included more substance. Importantly, Biden evoked democracy and human rights ahead of other issues such as cybersecurity and Ukraine. “No president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values … it’s about who we are,” he said, citing the case of Navalny and the ability of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-funded broadcaster, to operate in Russia. He threatened “devastating consequences” for Russia if Navalny were to die in prison.
Biden’s overarching goal, he said, was that in the absence of trust, the US needed to have a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia: “The bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”
The optics of the meeting were good for both sides, partly because expectations going into the meeting were so low. Both leaders claimed that talks had been productive and constructive. Yet US-Russia relations remain at a record low, as Emily Tamkin writes in this week’s New Statesman, a state of affairs it will take a long time to undo even if both sides genuinely want to.
Putin has been in power for nearly 22 years, longer by far than any other leader of a major world power. His meeting with Biden was held 21 years, virtually to the day, after his first with a US president, which took place in Russia in 2000 with Bill Clinton.
The following year, Putin met then-president George W Bush in Slovenia. Bush was smitten with the Russian leader, who had only been in office for a year. Bush characterised Putin as “a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country”. Putin reciprocated, cooing that: “when the president of a great power says he wants to see Russia as a partner and maybe even as an ally, this is worth so much to us.” The BBC called the pair “best of friends”.
Putin’s long decades in power have seen Russia evolve from electoral democracy, of a sort, to a system of “managed democracy” – autocracy dressed up with the trappings of liberal democracy, with no real possibility for elections to change the government but limited space for opposition politics. In recent years, the line has hardened, with Navalny poisoned, probably by the security services, and media outlets critical of the Kremlin forced to register as “foreign agents” and in some cases to close. At the same time, relations with the US cooled, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
That shift within Russia has coincided with what is often called the “age of the strongman” internationally, with leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and China’s Xi Jinping consolidating power at home and being increasingly willing to project it abroad.
During the press conference, Biden briefly expounded on his view of Russia’s post-Soviet history. “Russia had an opportunity — that brief shining moment after Gorbachev and after things began to change drastically — to actually generate a democratic government,” he said. But Putin decided to attempt to sustain Russia as a “great power” on “the strength of the government”. Crucially, undemocratic government, Biden suggested, “does not lend itself to Russia maintaining itself as one of the great powers in the world.”
That, ultimately, is the story of Biden’s Europe trip and the common thread tying together his meetings at the G7, Nato and with Putin. Betting that democracy can outlast and outcompete autocracy, whether Chinese or Russian; that the rise of the strongman is not a law of history; that autocracy is not a symbol of strength but of weakness. In other words, the opposite philosophy to Trump’s. In the optics of the Geneva summit, Biden managed to distinguish himself from his predecessor, but it is still far from clear which worldview will be proven right.
[See also: Trapped in the Cold Web]