Three years ago, Vladimir Putin met with a US president in Helsinki, and helped him push a self-destruct button. Donald Trump’s press conference assertion he had no reason not to believe the Russian leader’s promises he hadn’t interfered in US elections – caused jaws to drop, and dominated headlines for most of his remaining term.
Wednesday’s summit in Geneva promises to be a much more sombre affair. With relations still defined by an undeclared conflict that has been simmering since at least 2008, a major breakthrough is off the cards. There will be no joint press conference, and minimal drama. Unlike his predecessor, Joe Biden is not even pretending he wants to reset relations.
Locals who are watching as their city centre is enveloped in barbed wire might be justified in asking what all the fuss was about.
Yet both sides have important enough objectives. According to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, it is about establishing handrails and predictable behaviour from Russia. For the Kremlin, it’s about further international rehabilitation post Crimea, and the ability to project their leader on the world stage.
Preparation for the meeting has been ongoing for several weeks, and a final agenda has reportedly been agreed. Presidents Biden and Putin are due to meet at 1pm local time in an 18th century villa overlooking Lake Geneva. They will then sit down for five hours of talks: first with small delegations consisting of presidents and foreign ministers; then in an extended format; and then possibly one-on-one, accompanied only by translators.
So with that in mind, what are the things to look out for?
1. A joint declaration
All the leaks in the lead up to the summit suggest a communique or other joint statement is in the offing. It seems likely any text will declare an end to diplomatic warfare, the exchange of ambassadors and the full or partial re-establishment of normal consular staffing. It will also declare the start of a multi-year "dialogue" on strategic stability, says the former Russian diplomat Vladimir Frolov. This may also be extended to include regional security issues like Afghanistan, North Korea, Libya, and Syria, he adds.
2. Cracks in US democratisation rhetoric
So far in his term, Joe Biden has combined two seemingly incompatible approaches in his foreign policy: Henry Kissinger-style pragmatism and Jimmy Carter-style idealism. Russia has been no different – at least as far as rhetoric is concerned. In the run up to the summit, for example, the US president promised to raise issues of Putin’s crushing of dissent while also impressing on him his resolve on hacking and interference. Common sense suggests only one will take priority.
It will be interesting to note Biden’s rhetoric on jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and on human rights. Any inconsistency with Kremlin readouts might provide important clues as to how much the White House is really pressing the subject on their Russian partners.
3. New thinking on Russia
Russia and the United States meet in very different conditions to the last time Mr Biden was in power, as vice-president to Barack Obama. That period was a high-point of US political dominance, with Obama famously dismissing Russia as a regional power (an attack that reportedly infuriated Putin). Now, the US is attempting to regain lost influence in a post-Trump world, with Russia consolidating in a different direction: as a national capitalist autocracy.
It isn’t yet clear if Biden’s team has yet caught up with the changes. Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire a 2013 book on Putin’s Russia, said the US president’s team seemed stuck in the paradigm of that previous era: "A lot of them still believe the regime is in great difficulty because of the economy, but the reality suggests it’s only increasing its control."
4. A deal on Ukraine?
Ukraine wasn’t expected to be a major topic of conversation given the extent to which they disagree about it. Russia, for example, still claims not to be a party to the conflict it has been stoking for seven years. Yet on Wednesday, the Kremlin confirmed its point-man Dmitry Kozak would be included in presidential talks. That would suggest serious deal-making may be in the offing.
Ukrainian political expert Vladimir Fesenko cautioned against too much optimism: negotiations would likely begin and end with an agreement to restore a de-escalation hotline, he said. But former diplomat Frolov said they could go further, adding it was unlikely the contents of the conversation would ever be made public
5. The stability of agreement
In the run up to the conference, Russian state TV continued familiar attacks on the US president, using his not uncommon gaffes to portray him as a geriatric fool. Russia on the other hand is also often characterised negatively in US media. But the forthcoming election cycles are likely to put the most pressure on bilateral relations.
The US has midterms in 2022, with the instinctively pro-Kremlin Donald Trump threatening a reappearance. Meanwhile in Russia, parliamentary elections are looming in September.
It seems difficult to believe Mr Putin and his team will be able to resist a familiar bogeyman – and push the United States back up the ranks to public enemy number one.
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