American President Joe Biden’s first encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin was unpleasant. In November 2001, the new Russian president was driven to Capitol Hill after a friendly news conference at the White House with then-US president George W Bush. There, Putin met Biden, then-chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other leading lawmakers.
Things went south quickly when some legislators tried to bring up Russia’s expanding sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Putin pounced.
“It was like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” said Michael Haltzel, who was then Biden’s Europe and Russia specialist and was in the room. “All that sweetness in the Rose Garden, and then it was just viciousness. He was nasty. His eyes were darting left and right. He looked like a cornered animal.”
Since then, Haltzel said, Biden has been skeptical of finding any real accommodation with Russia on common values like democracy and human rights. During a Kremlin visit in 2011 as vice-president, Biden said he told Putin he “doesn’t have a soul” — an arch reference to Bush’s comment, widely mocked, that he found Putin “very straightforward and trustworthy” and “was able to get a sense of his soul”.
“He’s always been a realist,” Haltzel said. “He’s never had any illusions about these people.” But how does he act now that he’s US president? Biden isn’t expected to achieve much at his initial summit with Putin in Geneva on Wednesday, but with his focus on the rise of China and his domestic agenda, his team does want to establish what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia”.
The language echoes, more or less, what Moscow has been saying, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarking that “we’re absolutely interested in normalising these relations”.
That is where any agreement seems to end. Even before they sat down, the two leaders appeared to disagree about a proposal made by Putin. After Biden said Putin’s declared openness to exchange cybercriminals with the United States is “potentially a good sign of progress” on Sunday, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Biden had been misunderstood.
“What he was saying was that if Vladimir Putin wants to come and say, ‘I’m prepared to make sure that cybercriminals are held accountable’, Joe Biden is perfectly willing to show up and say cybercriminals would be held accountable in America because they already are,” Sullivan told reporters afterward. “This is not about exchanges or swaps or anything like that.”
What is it about? All Biden can hope to achieve in the foreseeable future is a kind of cold peace, many experts said. This would be built on mutual cooperation — for example, over managing the aftermath of Russia’s intervention in Syria, the bilateral nuclear Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Iran’s nuclear program, and climate change — and perhaps what experts call “rough rules of the road” for curbing cyberwarfare and the ransomware attacks that have so disrupted relations.
At a new conference following his meeting with NATO leaders on Monday, Biden said he wants “to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses” but only if Putin doesn’t continue to act “in a way he has in the past”. He also said he plans to “make it clear where the red lines are”.
The biggest obstacle may be that, for both sides, intransigence with the other pays off politically at home.
“Trust in Putin is falling, and the economy is stagnant. One of the ways he can try to further his support is by being seen as a co-equal with the United States on the world stage,” said Timothy Frye, a Columbia University scholar who authored a recent book on Putin called Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.
“Putin will try to personalise the summit and give the appearance of a mano-a-mano& struggle with Biden in order to reinforce the message that it is really Putin keeping Russia strong.”
That means Putin is also likely to lash out in some way — and continue to wink and nod at Russian ransomware hackers he regularly claims to have no knowledge of.
Biden, meanwhile, is being attacked by Republicans for waiving sanctions against the company building Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, calling the controversial project a “done deal” and saying he wants good relations with Berlin.
In an essay in the Washington Post on Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member James Risch accused the administration of having “no concrete agenda for the meeting” and said Putin’s only interest is to sow “chaos”.
The Biden team also carefully organised the trip so the president would meet with NATO and Western allies first and then cruise into Geneva with the “wind at his back”, Sullivan said. Their intended message: it’s Russia versus the rest of us. (Of course, it’s not, since it was notably the European allies, chiefly Germany, that pressed Biden to concede on Nord Stream 2.)
Nor are the two leaders said to have any real chemistry — especially after Biden, asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in March if he thought Putin was a “killer”, responded, “I do”. The comment prompted a furious response from the Kremlin.
And Putin, who has long made the encroachment of NATO a justification for his own moves against Ukraine, knows Biden was an early and aggressive proponent of NATO’s eastward expansion.
When Putin was asked by NBC News in an interview that aired over the weekend about Biden’s comment that he had no soul, the Russian leader responded: “I do not remember this particular part of our conversations.” He suggested he could work with Biden and echoed US officials who have called for more “predictability and stability” in Russia’s relationship with the US. “This is something we haven’t seen in recent years,” he added, blaming Washington for the problem.
Lavrov even said, in an interview with Russia’s Rossiya Segodnya state news agency, that US-Russia relations are currently worse than they were during the Cold War because of a lack of “mutual respect”.
Lavrov’s real message seemed to be that Washington doesn’t respect Moscow enough — and if that doesn’t change, the Russians are going to continue to make trouble in places like Ukraine’s border (where Putin provoked Biden in recent weeks by deploying nearly 80,000 troops) as well as at home, where the Kremlin recently banned dissident Alexei Navalny’s political movement.
Moscow says no progress is possible if the US keeps piling on sanctions. Last month, the Biden administration added to them by imposing sanctions for interfering in the 2020 US presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWinds hack of federal agencies, both of which Moscow has denied.
Yet another provocation from Moscow emerged last week. As multilateral talks with Iran approach a critical point over its nuclear program — negotiations Moscow is ostensibly part of — the Washington Post reported Russia is preparing to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system that would enable Tehran to track regional military targets.
At a news conference on Sunday, before his NATO summit, even as he said he agreed with Putin that relations were at a low point, Biden spoke vaguely of being “ready” to develop “some strategic doctrine” to work with Russia. That may be a stretch, some experts said, especially when it comes to cyber threats.
“I don’t think there is enough trust for a meaningful formal agreement, but there can be discussions that clarify each side’s red lines,” said Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, a former senior US diplomat.
Both sides recognise the virtues of at least some stability — and Putin can ill afford more of an arms race than he already has: cyber, nuclear or otherwise. During the Cold War, despite settled certainty on both sides that they would outlast the other — analogous to the way some US experts view Putin’s shaky regime today and the Kremlin sees mainly a fractured, declining US — there was plenty of strategic accommodation, especially in arms control. That meant a degree of openness and restraint even as both sides continued to conduct major espionage and disrupt each other’s operations, similar to today’s cyberhacking.
Many experts are also worried that, with Putin developing new nuclear-powered cruise missiles and transoceanic nuclear-armed torpedoes, a new nuclear arms race has begun largely under the radar, resurrecting a scary idea that Cold War deterrence had seemed to put to rest: that fighting a nuclear war is possible.
“How many disagreements did we have with the Soviet Union, yet we concluded arms control pacts that provided insight into the most destructive weapons we have?” said Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at Rand Corp. “The idea of a cold peace is a good metaphor so as to get the relationship to a place where Russia is no longer taking highly destabilising actions.”
As a result, at the very least one “deliverable” expected out of the summit may be that both sides will restore their ambassadors to their posts.
Russia recalled its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, from Washington shortly after the new US president took office, when Biden, in his ABC interview, said Putin “will pay a price” for his efforts to undermine the 2020 US election and delivered his “killer” comment. Moscow then booted US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan.
At the NATO summit, Biden is intent on forging an agreement on a revised NATO Strategic Concept that includes a united front against “Russia’s aggressive policies and actions” as well as challenges posed by China to “our collective security, prosperity, and values”,
Sullivan told reporters on Sunday that NATO allies are planning to extend the alliance’s Article 5 — which pledges assistance among NATO allies in case of attack — to cyberwarfare on “a case-by-case basis”. Under that new understanding, allies would provide “technical or intelligence support from another ally” if any nation is hit with “a massive cyberattack”.
The biggest advantage Biden may have going into the summit is his success at lowering expectations. By scheduling a Biden-only, follow-up news conference, the administration ensured there would be nothing like Trump’s embarrassing performance with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, when Trump said he believed the Russian leader after Putin said he was not interfering in US elections.
“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference to try to embarrass each other,” Biden told reporters over the weekend. “Now, he can say what he said the meeting was about, and I will say what I think the meeting was about.”
Michael Hirsch is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.