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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia-U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like.

Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc.

Biden has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria.

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Igor Ivanov:
Time for Diplomacy

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

First published in Russian in the Izvestiya.


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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
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    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
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    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
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