What can we expect from the summit meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?
That is the expectation that Biden is setting. There will be no grand pronouncements, no reset, maybe not even a perfunctory statement of agreement on a minor point. That is part of the reason that Biden plans to hold a press conference by himself. The other part, of course, is in contrast with Donald Trump’s disastrous showing at Helsinki.
But the meeting is necessary and important. Russia is a major country, with a nuclear arsenal equivalent to America’s. Russia is adjacent to our allies in Europe and supplies energy to many of them. It has a long land border across which untoward things can happen. Those are reason enough for the leaders to meet.
The meeting is important because tensions between the two countries have increased during the 21st century. The United States has pulled out of treaties that stabilized the relationship rather than try to resolve problems. Russia has acted as an international spoiler. Both sides need to show reliability in their actions. That can only be done through meetings.
Many issues might be discussed – the situation with those treaties and how to go forward, the situation in Ukraine, American sanctions on Russia, Russia’s attacks on dissidents inside and outside Russia, the situation in Syria, America’s return to the Iran nuclear agreement, relations with China, the uses of the Arctic, and more. Both men have their own lists of priorities. It’s likely that their aides have exchanged those lists and are working to pare them down to fit in the time available.
Those aides have also been gaming out something like a SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. I’ll do a bit of that here. Obviously, I’m coming at it from an Americentric viewpoint.
The real strength internationally today is in dealing with the pandemic. The pandemic hinders economies and military strength. Biden understands this and has made controlling the pandemic his first priority, with some success. In contrast, Russia is going into another wave of disease. Its people are more reluctant than Americans to be vaccinated, and its vaccine may be less effective than others. Brazil and Slovakia have raised questions about quality control in its manufacture.
Russia’s willingness to take risks to upend other countries’ expectations in terms of invading its neighbors and willingness to kill individuals seen as dissidents both inside and outside Russia is a strength. It keeps opponents off guard and makes the most of capabilities that are weaker than others’.
Russia’s role as a supplier of natural gas to Europe is a strength in dealing with Europe, to be used as leverage against the formal alliances of NATO and the EU. Both of those alliances are strengths, emphasized during Biden’s visits these two weeks.
Both countries have weaknesses in their domestic political situations. America has a major political party that is sympathetic to and influenced by Russian organizations. Russia’s poor economic situation and repression of dissidents have led to demonstrations, which repression may damp down. Putin is not grooming a successor, which is not a problem now but will become one at some point. America’s last president contines to try to undermine the succession.
The summit itself is an opportunity for Putin personally. He wants Russia to be seen as an equal to America, and a summit provides favorable optics. But that doesn’t improve Russia’s economy or pandemic status. And Russia is an equal in nuclear destructive power.
The opportunity for both is to feel the other out, understand him better, try out approaches. The personal relationship is far from the whole thing, but it’s not unimportant.
The biggest policy opportunity is likely to be in the area of the now defunct nuclear treaties. Both sides understand that nuclear war or accident is the greatest danger facing them. Additionally, both sides are looking at very expensive plans for modernizing their nuclear forces. In the economic crunch of the pandemic, sizing those plans down would be significant. Communication of actions that might look like war is important. Bringing China into discussions of limiting numbers of nuclear weapons is worth thinking about. The most that might be achieved in this meeting would be agreement to hold working meetings on these topics.
Biden will bring up Ukraine, and Putin will bring up sanctions. The most that will be mentioned of these subjects in any communiqué will be that they were discussed. Maybe some positive words can be ginned up about the Arctic. It is possible that there will not be a joint communiqué.
Threats to a chummy outcome with roses and unicorns are pretty much everything about the relationship, which is why Biden is damping down expectations, and Putin isn’t saying much either.
In the leadup to the summit, both sides are making gestures of strength and perhaps signaling ways forward. They are predictable and not very significant.
One that I find significant is that NATO made a statement that it will not deploy new land-based missiles to Europe. It wasn’t planning to, but Russia has deployed potentially nuclear cruise missiles in the area. It was these missiles that were the proximate cause of the American withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Russia says it is willing to come back to an INF-style treaty in Europe, but it will be a long way. The activity around this issue suggests it will be discussed, although the best we can expect is the formation of a working group.
Biden will have his own interpreter and note-taker with him. He may also have Jake Sullivan or Antony Blinken along. Putin will have a similar complement of his people. The summit will take place, and we will move along to the next thing.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner