(MOSCOW) — When Russian President Vladimir Putin meets President Joe Biden on Wednesday in Switzerland, experts in Moscow say for all their differences, the two leaders want something similar from their first summit: to cool things down.
The U.S. and Russia’s relations are the worst they have been since the Cold War and since 2016 in particular seem locked in almost permanent crises.
Biden has said he wants a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia, one that would allow it to focus on other foreign policy priorities that are more important to it, like taking a harder line with China. The Kremlin for its part has faced a continuous and intensifying barrage of sanctions– the latest in April– and with its crackdown on opposition at home and aggressive actions abroad is increasingly becoming a pariah with western countries.
Since coming to office, Russia has appeared to want to get Biden’s attention. The president offered Putin the summit after Russia massed thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border in April.
But now, having got Biden to the table, analysts said Putin has a clear proposal to deliver in Geneva: stay out of Russian domestic politics and Russia might act less troublesome abroad.
“The Kremlin wants to transition to a respectful adversarial relationship from a disrespectful one we have today,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former diplomat at Russia’s embassy in Washington and now a commentator on foreign affairs.
“That is, it wants to be treated the same way the Soviet Politburo was treated by the US in 1970-80s,” Frolov told ABC News. “Meaning no name-calling” (such as Biden calling Putin a “killer”), “no personal sanctions on the leadership, no democracy lectures, regular personal summit meetings; respectful tone of discussions, no tangible support for Russian opposition.”
It will not be an invitation for détente but instead to return to the later years of the Cold War when Putin was a KGB agent and the Soviet Union and the U.S. saw each other as enemies but tried to maintain a predictable relationship. And, crucially, where Russia was treated as an equal.
“For this, the Kremlin is prepared to promise to behave more responsibly,” Frolov said.
“This seems to be in line with what the White House sees as a desirable deliverable,” he continued. “So unless one of the leaders stormed out of the meeting shouting expletives, the summit would be a major success.”
A successful summit might be followed by a period of greater calm, analysts said, with Russia reining in aggressive operations abroad, such as its assassinations with chemical weapons, and less overt attempts at election meddling. Like in the Cold War, it would also mean focusing the relationship on discussions of strategic stability and arms control — also a priority for the Biden administration.
Russia’s seizure of two American former Marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, as hostages — and its signalling that it might trade them in a prisoner swap if the summit goes well — could be seen as more leverage to persuade the U.S. of the benefits of having Russia play nicer, and the costs of having it not.
But the problem is events and the Kremlin’s own core interests may get in the way.
The Kremlin is currently waging a crackdown on political opposition unprecedented under Putin’s rule. It has jailed its most prominent critic Alexey Navalny — after he survived a nerve agent poisoning — and last week outlawed his movement. Most leading figures of the anti-Kremlin opposition are now under arrest or living in exile in a sign, rights groups and analysts have said, Putin no longer appears willing to tolerate any political opposition at all.
“The question is how, to what extent Biden will accept this new situation,” Fyodor Lukyanov, a member of the Russian International Affairs Council, that sometimes advises Russia’s government, told ABC News.
Biden has already condemned the crackdown and sanctioned Russia over Navalny’s jailing and poisoning and Lyukanov said it was clear Biden would continue to speak out on human rights.
“But at the same time, will it be a priority for Biden or not? That remains to be seen,” Lukyanov said.
But if Biden does so, it will make any improvement in relations impossible, he said.
At the summit, that puts Biden in a complicated position: how to deliver a firm warning to Putin without antagonising him.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon who spent a decade in prison after challenging Putin politically and whose own pro-democracy organization Open Russia was forced to close this month under pressure from authorities, said Biden must set boundaries with Putin “clearly and publicly.”
“Biden must categorically impress upon him that this time severe consequences will follow,” Khodorkovsky wrote on Twitter. “Failing to do so would maintain the status quo of handshake politics, serving just to soothe Putin’s ego. While this may briefly relieve tensions, in the long term it seeds further conflicts.”
But confronting Putin aggressively, publicly in Geneva will also achieve little for Biden, said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute.
Doing so would likely provoke another dangerous bout of troublemaking from Russia with few gains for the U.S, Galeotti wrote in an article for The Moscow Times Monday.
“Taking a firm line publicly can all too easily look like a challenge, a demand that Russia bend the knee,” Galeotti wrote. “Putin will not, cannot allow that to pass unchallenged. If threats are to be made, let them be out of public gaze and earshot.”
There are signs Biden is already trying to thread that needle. On Monday, he told reporters Putin was a “worthy adversary.”
“He’s bright. He’s tough,” Biden said in Brussels. “And I have found that he is a, as they used to say when I used to play ball, a worthy adversary.”
A successful summit for both sides then, analysts said, might not look dramatic.
“I can describe how I see the success of this summit,” Lukyanov said.
It would end with Putin and Biden making statements saying basically the same thing, he said.
“’We discussed a range of issues. We agreed about our common responsibility in the field of strategic stability’” and then pledging a working group to discuss how to improve it, taking into account cyberattacks and new types of nuclear weapons, Lukyanov said.
“And that will be a great success,” he added.
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