The most eagerly awaited event in President Joe Biden’s overseas trip to Europe is his June 16 summit meeting in Geneva with Vladimir Putin.
This is a high-drama event (whether or not the drama takes place in public). Biden has billed his entire trip as an effort to rally the world’s democracies to the competition with dictators at a seminal moment in history. He will meet Putin only after conferring with America’s closest European allies, and with NATO.
“We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over,” Biden told U.S. troops in England on Wednesday. “We have to expose as false the narrative that decrees of dictators can match the speed and scale of the 21st [century] challenges.”
Biden says the United States wants “a stable and predictable relationship” with Russia so Washington can work on arms control and “strategic stability” (avoiding military clashes), but is that goal a delusion?
I asked several experts on Russia whether it was possible to have a stable relationship with Moscow, and their response was a qualified “maybe” — but only if Biden is direct with Putin about America’s red lines and responds if they are crossed.
Biden’s background, and long experience with Russia and Putin, rule out the blatant errors former President Donald Trump made at the disastrous 2018 Trump summit in Helsinki. Who can forget the moment when Trump kowtowed to the Russian leader at a news conference, endorsing Putin’s denial of election interference over the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies?
“The previous [Trump] team couldn’t handle Putin,” I was told by Fiona Hill, senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council under Trump, who attended the Helsinki summit. “This [Biden] team will stick to message, and not have someone up there freelancing.
“Biden is a professional. You can manage this if you have discipline, limited expectations, and act like a president. You make sure that everyone knows what was said, and you make it clear that the summit was not a reward.”
Hill thinks it’s worthwhile to try to reestablish regular diplomatic contacts with the Russians over issues that should be of common interest — like preventing military clashes — and in order to lay down markers on aggressive Russian actions.
But Biden needs to be realistic about prospects for “strategic stability.”
“Putin wants instability, managed confrontation,” she warns, to show his toughness to the home audience and the world.
Hill adds, however: “The Russians don’t want to provoke a U.S. response. They worry about going too far.”
Further, she adds, they want to use deniability (as when they deny Russian involvement in election meddling or cyberattacks). “We have to hit them back so they respect the limits.”
Of course, Putin will try to shift the conversation from Russian aggression.
“Putin’s vision of security in Europe is Yalta II,” says Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary-general of NATO. Vershbow is referring to the post-World War II carve-up of Europe into spheres of influence by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Yalta.
“And Putin’s idea of strategic stability,” the former diplomat adds, “is based on the U.S. giving a free hand to repress [Russian dissidents such as Alexei] Navalny and pressure on Ukraine. We have to show we don’t want stability more than he does.”
Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Warsaw, offers the same caution. “I hope Ukraine and Belarus won’t be forgotten and it is critical to talk about Navalny. Whatever Biden doesn’t say will be noted by Putin and will be seen as acquiescing.”
He (and Vershbow) expressed concern about the White House waiver on sanctions against the Nord Stream II pipeline carrying gas from Russia to Germany, which, they say, gives Putin a victory.
“We would love Biden to talk from a position of strength and the democratic values he’s been talking about for a long time,” Baranowski said.
In the end, Biden’s most important task may be to demonstrate convincingly to Putin that U.S. democracy is still strong and vital. Years after the Helsinki summit, that goal is still undercut by Trumpism, and divisions at home.
“We have to show we’re living up to our own ideals,” says Hill. “Our intelligence services are most definitely ready to push back [against Putin’s aggression]. But we are so divided we can’t launch any effective political response.
“Putin is hoping Biden can’t do a damn thing. He wants chaos. He wants our political polarization and us not able to have any agreement on foreign policy.”
So dealing with Putin will not only take Biden’s smarts in Geneva, but requires a rethink by GOP politicians who continue to undermine America’s democratic institutions. They are doing Putin’s business for him even though Trump is gone.