With US-Russia relations at low point, Biden, Putin each bring a wariness to Geneva summit

·10 min read

Vladimir Putin will always have Helsinki.

Three years ago this July, former President Donald Trump stood side by side with Russia's leader at a press conference in Finland's capital and blithely dismissed assessments from his own intelligence agencies, defense officials and American lawmakers about Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

"President Putin says it's not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be," Trump said on July 16, 2018, echoing Putin's denials after the two men had been behind closed doors for nearly two hours.

When President Joe Biden meets with Putin on Wednesday for a one-day summit in Geneva, the West's favorite geopolitical bogeyman is not likely to get the easy pass he got from Trump, according to U.S. and Russian foreign affairs experts.

Former President Donald Trump tosses a soccer ball to his wife First lady Melania Trump after Russian President Vladimir Putin presented it to him during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018.
Former President Donald Trump tosses a soccer ball to his wife First lady Melania Trump after Russian President Vladimir Putin presented it to him during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018.

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"I don't expect (the) kind of bromance that Trump aspired to," said Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. "I have modest expectations about what this immediate meeting can deliver in practical terms."

The long list of U.S. grievances with Russia

Biden has made no secret of his disdain for Putin, who is Russia's longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. Stalin led the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953. Putin has been in office as prime minister or president for a period spanning two decades.

In March, Biden provided a flavor of his view of Putin when he assented to an interviewer's description of Russia's leader as a "killer" and then further pledged to make Russia, and Putin in particular, "pay" for Moscow's alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election.

A declassified U.S. intelligence report released this spring concluded Putin authorized the Russian state and its proxies to conduct an extensive operation aimed at "denigrating" Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on March 10, 2011.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on March 10, 2011.

Yet the list of U.S. grievances with Russia is long, and goes way beyond election meddling – although Moscow has consistently denied any wrongdoing:

  • In May, Biden expelled Russian diplomats and announced new sanctions on Moscow in retaliation for the massive SolarWinds hacking operation that targeted multiple U.S. federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, State and Energy.

  • The FBI believes the main culprit of a ransomware attack called DarkSide that in early May shut down Colonial Pipeline, the United States' largest fuel pipeline, is a Russian cybercrime network that operates by the same name.

  • U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia is the main suspect in connection with a group of U.S. diplomats and government employees suffering from "Havana Syndrome," a mysterious and hard-to-treat neurological condition whose symptoms include headaches, tinnitus and balance issues.

  • Washington considers Russia's work on a gas pipeline (Nord Stream 2) that would run from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea a threat to European energy security.

  • Biden is displeased with Putin's increasingly assertive crackdown on Russia's political opposition, including the jailing of democracy activists such as Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned in Russia in February for breaking parole conditions. Navalny was not able to meet those conditions because he was in Germany receiving treatment after being poisoned with a Russian-made military grade nerve agent.

  • Putin's pledge to support neighboring Belarus financially and militarily amid President Alexander Lukashenko's own human rights transgressions has attracted Washington's ire. Lukashenko, routinely referred to as Europe's last dictator, has used violence to suppress largely peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. Lukashenko is widely suspected of ordering the diversion of a commercial airline flight to facilitate the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist.

  • Russia's ongoing territorial aggressions on the edge of Europe in Ukraine have also not been forgotten by Washington, nor have unverified reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American troops. (While the bounty allegation has not been confirmed, some analysts have pointed out that during the Reagan administration, the U.S. helped pre-Taliban resistance fighters at war with Russia, sending them deadly anti-aircraft missiles and other assistance.)

  • Moscow has remained a steadfast ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, lending his regime vital economic and military support that has helped prop up Syria's longtime dictator and given him license to wage a yearslong civil war that's killed at least 500,000 people and displaced several million more.

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What Biden and Putin hope to gain

A Swiss flag flies behind Russian and American flags in Geneva, Switzerland, prior to a meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 15, 2021.
A Swiss flag flies behind Russian and American flags in Geneva, Switzerland, prior to a meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 15, 2021.

"The one question that will hover over the summit is: Can Biden and Putin leave Geneva with having taken some poison out of the relationship," said Charles Kupchan, who coordinated the White House's European policy during the Obama administration.

Before leaving the U.K. on Sunday, where he appeared at a G-7 summit with the leaders of other rich countries, Biden said: "We’re not looking for conflict. We're looking to resolve those actions which we think are inconsistent with international norms."

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For Putin, the fact he snagged a summit with Biden at all may represent a diplomatic victory of sorts, according to Arkady Dubnov, a Russian political analyst.

Dubnov said that while Biden is going to Geneva to press Putin on myriad perceived Russian transgressions, the Russian leader's main goal in attending is to try to project confidence as part of efforts to resurrect Russia's status as a superpower.

One Russia expert says Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to highlight America’s political polarization, and make Biden and the U.S. look incompetent or dysfunctional at Wednesday's summit with President Joe Biden in Geneva.
One Russia expert says Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to highlight America’s political polarization, and make Biden and the U.S. look incompetent or dysfunctional at Wednesday's summit with President Joe Biden in Geneva.

Three decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the former bloc's biggest country is a shadow of the military power and global influencer it once was.

But that hasn't stopped Moscow from being a troublemaker, critics say.

"Russia is quite invested in having a confrontational friction-filled, rather than friction-free, relationship with the United States," said Fiona Hill, a former national security adviser to Trump. Hill said earlier this year she considered "faking" a medical emergency to bring Trump's notorious 2018 news conference in Helsinki with Putin to an end.

Putin will inevitably try to highlight America’s political polarization and make Biden and the U.S. look incompetent or dysfunctional, Hill said during a Thursday briefing held by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank where she is now a senior fellow.

Dubnov said he expects Putin to seek guarantees from Biden that the U.S. won't support attempts by former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. While they are independent countries, the Kremlin still views them as integral components of Russia's sphere of influence and necessary to keeping a dividing line with Europe. In return for any concessions from Biden, according to Dubnov, Putin could offer to let Navalny leave Russia and force Lukashenko to give up power in Belarus.

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Still, Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian military intelligence officer who now directs the Carnegie Moscow Center, a foreign affairs think tank in Russia's capital, said expectations for the meeting are "uniquely bad" and that "Putin will not apologize. He will not admit to being behind alleged hacking attacks or things of that kind."

Trenin added that in some respects the U.S.-Russia relationship is much worse now than it was during the Cold War. He said, for example, there is simply "no willingness" by the U.S. to treat Russia as an equal, as there largely was when the U.S. and its allies and the then-Soviet Union and its satellite states squared off on a decadeslong struggle for supremacy mostly across Europe and parts of Asia.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden depart the White House on June 9, 2021, for their first international trip. On June 16, Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden depart the White House on June 9, 2021, for their first international trip. On June 16, Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden has largely reinforced that point by spending his week in Europe – first at the G-7 meeting in Cornwall, England, and then at a NATO leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium – laying out a tough line on a geopolitical adversary he doesn't trust, or like.

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"There’s no guarantee you can change a person’s behavior," Biden said of Putin. "Autocrats have enormous power, and they don’t have to answer to the public."

And Putin himself gave an indication of the obfuscatory tone he's likely to adopt when challenged by Biden to account for Russia's alleged behavior, saying in an NBC News interview: "We have been accused of all kinds of things. Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations."

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Putin said in the interview there was no guarantee Navalny, the Kremlin critic who survived being poisoned with a nerve agent, would get out of prison alive.

"He will not be treated any worse than anybody else," he said.

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Potential for productive Geneva summit

Yet the meeting in Switzerland may be more than an exercise in confrontation. Or a chance for Biden to point a sharp finger at Putin while he characteristically shrugs it off.

Paul Poast, an expert on international relations at the University of Chicago, said the two men could jump-start a process that eventually leads to a more stable, predictable relationship, particularly if they agree to restore ground-level diplomatic contacts.

"They don't need Russia to be a friend," he said of the Biden White House. "This is not going to be a reset. … They just don't want Russia to be disruptive."

In one sign of potential room for a constructive discussion, on Sunday both Biden and Putin appeared to suggest they were open to discussing extraditing cybercriminals. It's unclear whether this possible openness would extend to a broader prisoner swap for Americans such as Paul Whelan, a former Marine detained in Russia on spying allegations despite a lack of concrete evidence from Russian authorities.

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And Trenin noted the summit could present an opportunity to start fresh discussions on extending the New START treaty that expires in 2026. The nuclear arms control treaty was renewed this year but Russia has since accused Washington of exceeding the number of agreed launchers and bombers permitted by the pact. The U.S. says it is in full compliance with the treaty and that these launchers and heavy bombers are incapable of employing nuclear weapons and thus put them outside the treaty.

"The summit will also allow Biden and Putin to exchange their 'red lines,'" Trenin said, referring to a figurative point of no return on policy differences.

"They don't have to abide by them but it's useful to know what these 'red lines' are," he added, before expressing a note of concern.

"We're talking about a relationship that is just one step away from a collision in the very physical sense of the word. A collision potentially leading to military conflict, and even a nuclear war. We are almost at the end of the road in the (U.S.-Russia) relationship."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden and Putin meet at Geneva Summit: What to expect