The US and Russia seem to be returning to the path of pragmatism despite their bilateral relations reaching ‘the lowest point’ in recent years, however, both Putin and Biden could have one ‘common goal’ — checkmate China.
This, in nutshell, appears to be the real meaning of the first summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16.
It is to the credit of the new Biden Administration that it is receptive to the school of thought that says that an over-confrontationist policy based on sanctions against Russia will not work; instead, it will push Russia deeper into the camp of China, the number one adversary of the United States at the moment.
That explains why the initiative for the Geneva summit came from President Biden. Shortly before leaving for Europe to attend the G-7 meet, “he gathered in the Roosevelt Room at the White House for a prep session with a group of outside Russia experts — including officials from the Trump and Obama administrations — to discuss a range of views about how to deal with Putin”, reported NBC News.
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Secondly, he created the atmosphere further conducive by waiving sanctions on the company overseeing the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline that a Russian-led consortium is constructing under the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing the existing network through Poland and Ukraine. And Biden did this by ignoring the bipartisan Congressional opposition that such a move would be a major strategic boost for Putin in Europe. That Germany itself is very keen on this project seemed to have helped the US President on taking this bold decision.
Takeaways From Geneva Summit
But then, the Geneva summit did not result in any notable breakthrough in US-Russian relations, except the agreement that the two countries will have their respective Ambassadors return to each other’s capital.
🇷🇺🇺🇸 The #RussiaUS Summit in Geneva has started. President Putin is meeting with President @JoeBiden.
💬 Vladimir #Putin: I hope that our meeting will be productive. pic.twitter.com/p8w30Jsv4K
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) June 16, 2021
Otherwise, the nearly three-hour talks between Biden and Putin in their first summit meeting saw them agreeing to disagree on most of the issues in their bilateral relations – cyber-attacks, election interference, Russia’s increased aggressive behavior toward Ukraine, and the crackdown on political opposition in Russia.
But they promised to keep on talking and begin “consultations” on cyber issues that have bedeviled their ties the most in recent years, with the US complaining of Russian cyberattacks on American agencies and Russia responding that most of the cyberattacks came from the USA and Canada.
In a sense, much was not really expected to come out from a meeting, whose importance lay in starting the process of talks between the US and Russia. This explains why in their separate post-summit news conferences, Biden described the tone of the discussions as “good, positive” and Putin said it was “constructive” and there was a “glimpse of hope” regarding mutual trust.
Howsoever, one may point out the decline of Russian power in recent years, there are some hard facts that cannot be ignored. And these are that no country other than Russia is capable to destroy the United States in, what experts say, 30 minutes, thanks to Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal, that there is Russia’s geographic centrality as a continental sized country in Eurasia with abundant natural resources, that Russia possesses one of the world’s most highly skilled manpower, and that Russia is a key global player with a Security Council veto in the United Nations.
In fact, with the exception of China, no country affects more issues of strategic and economic importance to the United States as does Russia, be it in Europe or the Middle East, or Central Asia.
Post-Cold War history has shown that every US President, Bill Clinton onwards, has tried to build better relations with Russia but failed. And that is because, as Thomas Graham (a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration) argues, Washington thought of turning Russia into an America-like or European-like democratic country.
Historically, Russia is proud of its centralized authoritarian system to manage its continental-sized country that is sparsely populated but multi-ethnic. It has always tried to be accepted as a major country in the world since the time of Peter the Great 300 years ago. None other than Putin had made it clear in a document called “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium” (released on December 30, 1999).
In this document, the Russian strongman had clearly outlined that he intended to return to the traditional Russian model of a strong, highly centralized authoritarian state. “Russia will not soon, if ever, become a version of the United States or England, where liberal values have deep historical roots. . . . For Russians, a strong and sturdy state is not an anomaly to be resisted. To the contrary, it is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and driver of any change,” he wrote.
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Putin or for that matter the Russian analysts do have a point when they say their legitimate national interests have been disregarded by the West in general and the US in particular after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia wants a multi-polar world but has been always under threats and insults such as the expansion of NATO up to the Russian border and economic sanctions.
Russians say, and again with great merits, that the US totally overlooked the history by imposing sanctions to cripple the Russian economy after Russia took over Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Crimea was part of Russia from 1783, when the Tsarist Empire annexed it a decade after defeating Ottoman forces in the Battle of Kozludzha, until 1954. That year the then Soviet government transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR).
It was a change of administration from one part of the country to another (Ukraine was very much a part of the then USSR) for administrative reasons. People in Crimea are essentially Russian in language and culture; they do not share much with Ukrainians and love being a part of Russia, something that has been confirmed by major independent surveys. In that sense, what Russia did in 2014 was to take back what belonged to it historically, and that too after Crimean demanded to return to Russia.
Fallouts Of US Sanctions On Russia
The US sanctions against Russia over its so-called annexation of Crimea have resulted in Moscow getting closer to and strengthening Beijing, whom President Biden has called “Washington’s most serious competitor”. The Chinese military has become stronger with Russian-made systems. Russia has aided China’s commercial penetration of Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe and the Middle East. It has given China access to natural resources at favorable prices.
In other words, the collateral effect of America’s actions against Russia and slighting it is the gaining of strength by China, Washington’s biggest headache at the moment.
Against this background, the Biden Administration is perhaps considering a pragmatic approach towards Russia that will “let Russia be Russia”. Such an approach is all the more understandable given the urgency that requires US-Russia convergence in two areas.
One is the arms control, particularly the extension of “New START” between the US and Russia, an agreement negotiated under President Barack Obama that reduces each country’s number of deployed nuclear weapons by 30%. Besides, it is reported that Putin wants limitation of America’s highly accurate long-range conventional systems that have the same strategic effect as nuclear weapons. On his part, Biden wants to limit Russia’s “exotic” weapons systems, like nuclear-propelled torpedoes, which are not covered by New START.
Second is the potential areas for cooperation that include limiting Iran’s nuclear program (one of Biden’s principal challenges, preventing the Afghan government from collapsing after the withdrawal of US troops, and collaborating with Putin against climate change (indeed, the first invitation of Biden to Putin was to participate in the virtual “Summit on Climate” that he had hosted on April 26).