Biden loses to Putin at Geneva summit just by showing up

After bonding with his well-mannered counterparts at the G7 Summit, President Biden is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, a man he called a “killer.” Biden’s aim at the G7 was to smooth over international relations that had become frosty under Donald Trump, a goal his European allies shared. They emerged chanting gauzy slogans, seeking to “Build Back Better” after the ruination wrought by the pandemic. 

Biden will similarly try to improve the relationship with his Russian counterpart. But unlike the Europeans, Putin has something very different in mind. He, too, has goals for the meeting but they involve self-aggrandizement and using the masquerade of cooperation to allow him to continue to harm America, as the Soviets before him did under détente.

As usual, the Americans are offering Russia a reset button. And as usual, Russia will contemptuously cast it aside.

Both presidents have acknowledged that U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Putin has threatened that the global security system is degrading and “the potential for conflict is growing.” TASS, the official Russian government “news” agency, compared the upcoming meeting between Biden and Putin to the June 4, 1961, meeting in Vienna between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, who was known for banging shoes on desks at the United Nations. 

Putin has laid the groundwork for doing so, inflicting what were undoubtedly state-sponsored cyber attacks on the United States — the employment of criminal groups to achieve the Russian state’s strategic goals is a common Kremlin tactic — and seeking to unbalance Biden by praising Donald Trump as an “extraordinary” and “talented individual,” while insulting Biden as a lifelong politician and “career man.”  

“Former” master spy Putin, having unleashed what some Western analysts refer to as “hybrid warfare” tactics on America, believes he has the upper hand when it comes to shaping the outcome of the meeting. While Biden genuinely seeks to stabilize Russo-American relations and make them more “predictable,” Putin wants to show that he has Biden by the jugular.

Biden will bring up a standard roster of issues that the United States has battled with Russia to resolve. These include nuclear security, arms control, rules of engagement for cyber operations during peacetime, Ukrainian sovereignty, and human rights violations — especially the recent poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. 

Little, if any, of this is achievable, because these goals are not shared by the other side. Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov said that “the most important aspect” of the bilateral U.S.-Russia dialogue is the “incompatible … mentality” between the two countries. Ryabkov, in typically Russian metaphoric language, compared the summit to an interaction between two intelligence agents from adversarial services: “It is impossible to impose on your spy counterpart your own thought process and your interpretation of what he says. But what you hear from him and the conclusions you make, as a result of what your counterspy says, become food for thought,” he said. Ryabkov summed up Putin’s goal for the summit as “strengthening of trust and mutual understanding,” by which he actually meant it would be a good intelligence-gathering opportunity for Russia.

Putin wants to convince Biden to abandon economic sanctions that the United States placed on Russia for Moscow’s malign behavior, such as the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, cyber attacks on the United States and Western interests, and human rights abuses. The Russian authoritarian is not interested in resolving any issues other than the sanctions. 

Putin — who understands the Biden administration’s priorities and the current president’s desire not to look like Trump — will pay lip service to his American counterpart. He will discuss climate change, cooperation on anti-COVID-19 measures, and so-called “strategic stability,” a doctrinal shorthand for avoiding nuclear war. These are red herrings meant to distract the Americans into thinking Russia seeks cooperation. But Russia does not care about climate change and its citizens are terrified of Putin’s Sputnik vaccine. The Kremlin has undermined “strategic stability” and nuclear security by developing weapons that violate the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and adopting a new, post–Cold War nuclear doctrine. Russia’s new, more dangerous nuclear doctrine calls for “first use” of nuclear strikes on the adversary to “de-escalate” a crisis, such as a non-nuclear, conventional conflict.

Putin is not interested in limiting Russia’s ability to wage cyber warfare on the United States by signing and abiding by a serious treaty. He may, however, continue to facetiously propagandize for a so-called “information weapons ban,” a definition with which the U.S. disagrees because it runs counter to the principle of freedom of speech, the cornerstone of U.S. democracy.

Putin, no longer invited to G7 meetings, craves the attention and respect the summit will bring. Although the Russian president has little regard for Biden — who summarized his inept agenda for the summit as “I will tell Putin what I want him to know” — Putin knows meeting with the head of the top global superpower is a propaganda coup. Simply sitting across the table from a U.S. president, even if it’s Joe Biden, achieves Russia’s goal of appearing as a great power that deals with America as an equal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted last week, “There is no strict summit agenda coordinated on paper. …We had no such thing with the Americans; we simply mentioned the issues both sides were planning to touch upon.”

Biden’s success at the summit will be judged by tangible accomplishments aimed at the improvement of relations between Moscow and Washington — such as Russian promises to halt cyber attacks on America, cease interference in America’s elections, or stop the Kremlin’s “not-so-covert” campaign to destabilize Ukraine. He may well get some promises, which everyone but the most naïve will know are worth as little as the PDF they will be written on. For Putin, the prize is less tangible but more achievable. It is simply having Biden show up and treat Russia like the equal it is not.

Rebekah Koffler is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the author of the forthcoming, “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.”

Tags Biden-Putin summit Donald Trump G7 summit Joe Biden Russia hacking Russia–United States relations Vladimir Putin
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