International (dis)order: The Biden-Putin showdown

What can we expect from the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva? Unlikely for Biden to come out with a clear win, that would mean Putin would have to capitulate away from his now longstanding disdain for the West, and especially for the United States. Biden wants to find areas of mutual concern where the two countries can cooperate — but what would those be, given how far apart the U.S. and Russia are 31 years after the fall of the Soviet Union?

Putin is in his fourth term as Russia’s president, which commenced in 2000 and continues today, and some argue, will continue indefinitely, at least until Putin says so. Biden is early in his first term and just concluded meetings with the G-7 and NATO, with some central themes emerging: China is a competitive security threat, and Russia is bad. Biden has called Putin a killer and a man without a soul. Hard to imagine the two will meet and find areas for a cooperative agreement. Russia likely has no intention nor no real incentive to comply with international law, obligations and responsibilities; the last seven years since the annexation of Crimea illustrates how hard Russia is willing to push back and challenge the call for cooperative normalization of relations. 

Putin’s time in office has been a story of strong man politics, making Russia relevant, and seeking revenge and retaliation for perceived wrongs. And one thing is clear, Putin does revenge well and is not one to accept or take an insult because for him, it gets to the heart of responding to the humiliation with the end of the Soviet Union. 

The success of the G-7 and NATO summit is still to be determined, but what is clear is the growing strength of the anti-China and “Russia must be checked” narratives. China and Russia are not the best of friends, but they see how each can help achieve national security objectives and better play together than apart. Both will use the other to support goals at home and abroad.

Over the years, Russia has engaged in malicious cyberattacks against the United States, intentional election interference, human rights abuses and the list goes on. Sanctions against Russia, which took shape in 2014, have done little to quiet the angry Putin nor check the country’s geopolitical influence. Russia has aligned with Saudi Arabia to be a de-facto member of the OPEC+ group, continues to cause disruptions in Syria and has strategically cozied up to its neighbor, China. The country is fortunate to have had a very adept central banker, Elvira Nabiulina. She has managed to maintain fiscal stability even in the face of COVID 19 and a collapse in the oil price in 2020. Today, with commodity prices rising, Russia’s economy looks to be in for a good couple of years.  

The perils of confrontation are great but unlikely to materialize into symmetric warfare; rather, we can expect more years of asymmetric warfare, not unlike what has been happening in different ways during Putin’s time as president. Any type of cooperation discussed in Geneva will be a façade, the relationship has already morphed into a full-blown adversarial one, and China is also now more inclined to play hardball. China has put forward the face of wanting to be a part of the international order, to be a competitive superpower along with the United States. Still, with the reset on U.S. alliances with Europe and other allies, including the quad, China feels threatened to act more aggressively and less orderly.

As 2021 unfolds, the scenarios of the late Zbigniew Brzezinski from his book, “The Grand Chessboard: American Supremacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives,” seems to be more accurate today than when he wrote it in 1997. He wrote of “the most dangerous scenario” taking shape between a closer China, Russia and Iran forging an anti-hegemonic coalition challenging the democracies of the West.  

Putin and Biden won’t share the stage for a joint press briefing after their meetings but are expected to each share an affirmative “win” narrative when asked how things went. Putin will not admit defeat, nor will he accept the perception of weakness in the face of meeting Biden. It’ll be a political arm-wrestling match, but the world will have to wait to find out who wins. The global order is looking more and more disorderly, and with sharper words and rising tensions between the United States, Russia and China, expect more disruption and uncertainty rather than less. Contestation may just be the new normal in international affairs.

Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., serves as the academic director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Global Security, Conflict and Cyber at the Center for Global Affairs and is a clinical professor. She is also the director of the SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab.

Tags Carolyn Kissane China Democracy G7 Joe Biden NATO Russia United States Vladimir Putin

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