Diplomacy Returns in Putin-Biden Talks

The long-awaited summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was perceived by both parties as frank, professional and constructive, even if at the end of the day both sides were left with positions that were as divergent going out as they were coming in. The most important thing about the Geneva Summit was that it halted the dangerous slide toward confrontation that both nations were engaged in. The lack of any breakthrough at the summit underscores the many areas of friction that remain between the two nations. The success of the summit is that the US and Russia agreed that it was time to rebuild a framework of meaningful diplomatic interaction. This framework can help manage and contain the numerous points of confrontation that continue to exist, while facilitating the resolution of disputes where possible.

There were no illusions on the part of either Biden or Putin about the prospects of any reset of relations or a breakthrough over any of the myriad of serious issues that confronted them going into their Jun. 16 Summit in Geneva. Both parties seemed to be painfully aware of the reality that relations between their respective countries had deteriorated to the point that there was no longer a sense of either structure or predictability, creating a kind of pervasive instability that could easily spin out of control, leading, in the extreme, to actual military conflict.

While the US rejected the notion of a joint press conference once the summit concluded, leaving each president to articulate their respective version of how the summit unfolded and what, if anything, was accomplished, the US and Russia did issue a joint statement on strategic stability, reaffirming to their mutual commitment to arms control and the principle “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In this regard, Biden and Putin agreed to embark on a deliberate and robust integrated bilateral strategic security dialogue designed to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.

The importance of this joint statement is the commitment on the part of both the US and Russia to rebuild mechanisms of diplomatic dialogue, which had atrophied over the years following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Under the administration of President Donald Trump, many of the staff positions that existed in the various departments and agencies responsible for managing normal bilateral relations were not filled, further complicating the ability for these two nations to meaningfully engage on critical issues of disagreement.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the summit is the fact that the ambassadors from each nation will return to their posts, where they will oversee the construction of this new framework for diplomacy. Many observers have noted that US and Russian relations have deteriorated to their worst level since the end of the Cold War. The reality is that relations today are far worse, and far more dangerous, than at any time during the Cold War because there is no mechanism in place to diplomatically manage confrontation. The Cold War avoided any escalation to an actual shooting war because of these mechanisms. Prior to the Geneva Summit, the US and Russia were engaged in a rapid deterioration of relations that risked real military confrontation, and with it the potential of nuclear conflict. By agreeing to rebuild a diplomatic framework for bilateral dialogue, the US and Russia have returned relations to a Cold War level. Given the alternative, this should be seen as a successful outcome.

Divergent Narratives

One of the stark realities that emerged from the Geneva Summit was the fact that the US and Russia came into the meeting with divergent narratives with little, if any, common ground, formed in some instances from two equally divergent fact sets. It is not a question of whose narrative more aligns with what set of facts. The important point is that both sides operate from a perception that their narrative is the correct one. Perceptions create their own reality, and no amount of US lecturing about the preeminence of a rules based international world order can alter a Russian belief system predicated on their understanding of existing treaty frameworks and obligations. In short, both the US and Russia believe in the legitimacy of their respective rules-based structures.

One important outcome of Geneva was the ability of both sides to articulate their respective positions freely and openly to the other, and then willingly listen to the response of the other party. In this way, there were no surprises regarding the numerous points of disagreement that existed, whether on issues of malign cyberactivity, human rights, international law, climate change, or the various regional points of interaction and potential conflict around the world, whether in the Arctic, Afghanistan, Iran or elsewhere. Each side laid out their respective red lines, as well as the potential consequences of these red lines being crossed. Information is power, and by engaging in such a frank and open dialogue, the US and Russia empowered each other to more responsibly manage their numerous points of disagreement, while highlighting those areas where cooperation and progress may be possible.

One of the more critical points of contention between the US and Russia going into the Geneva Summit was the issue of malign cyberactivity. This was not the one-way street that many in the US had painted. Russia made a vigorous case of its own about US cyberattacks on Russia, which, based upon the scope and scale declared by Russia, dwarfed the US complaints in terms of actual numbers of incidents involved. In the case of cyber, the Russian position was more than a case of simple deflection. Russia has been insisting for some time that the US engage in a formal dialogue to establish the “rules of the road” on cyberattacks. For the first time, the US has agreed to join in such discussions, reflecting the potential mutual benefits.

Energy Security

The unsung hero of the Geneva Summit was the issue of energy security. The US set the stage ahead of the talks by giving a de facto green light to the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, waiving sanctions designed to hamper the last stages of construction. This action was ostensibly a reflection of political reality by Biden, recognizing that sanctions would not be able to prevent the pipeline from being completed. Moreover, any continuation of sanctions would only hurt US-German relations at a time when Biden was seeking to repair the damage done to transatlantic relationships during the four years of the Trump presidency.

The sanctions waiver had the additional benefit of sending a signal to Russia concerning the potential for economic improvement if Russia’s relations with Europe and the US could be normalized. Biden made numerous references at the summit to the importance of energy security for the Russian economy, especially when calling for mutual restraint regarding cyberattacks. Both Putin and Biden cited the example of the ransomware attack on the US Colonial Pipeline as an example of the kind of infrastructure that needed to be protected from cyberattacks. Biden said that he raised the prospects of a similar cyberattack on Russia’s critical oil production sector as a reason why Russia should agree to and respect any red line placing critical infrastructure of this nature off limits to outside cyber-based interventions.

Energy security represents the kind of issue where Russia and the US should be able to build a constructive dialogue based upon mutual interests that could then carry over into other areas such as Ukraine relations. Energy security also translates into matters of overall economic opportunity, a topic raised by Biden as a potential incentive for Russia to constructively engage on a variety of issues that could serve as confidence building measures designed to pave the way for improved relations down the road.

It is the potential for, rather than the promise of, better relations that makes the Geneva Summit more than simply the resurrection of Cold War-era diplomatic protocols designed to manage confrontation. While US-Russian relations had deteriorated to the point that simply halting the downward progression is seen as a victory, the reality is that both nations desire a more normal relationship built on stability and predictability. Given the real divergence that exists on a host of critical issues, there was no way the Geneva Summit was going to achieve any major break in the deep freeze that currently exists between the two. But it is a critical first step in initiating the kind of thaw necessary for either country to be able to do more than, as Putin observed, simply yearn for a mirage of happiness on the horizon.


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