17/06/2021

Biden and Putin begin their own particular thaw

2 min
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin to Geneva.

It has been a long time since a summit between the presidents of the United States and Russia has been preceded by so much tension between the two leaders. We must remember that Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a "killer" last March in the wake of the Navalny affair, and the two countries recalled their respective ambassadors for consultations. And it was not even 24 hours before that NATO had described Russia as a "threat". Against this background, there was much expectation for the meeting between the two presidents in Geneva and the truth is that it did not disappoint. The two were pragmatic and decided to give themselves a margin to redirect their bilateral relations, and show that diplomatic apparatuses of the two powers know very well that they have nothing to gain from the crisis.

Putin has described the meeting as "pragmatic" and "constructive", while Biden has been even more optimistic and has affirmed that "there is a genuine prospect for a significant improvement in relations between the United States and Russia". In fact, throughout the three and a half hours that the summit lasted, the two countries have made progress on issues such as the denuclearisation of their respective arsenals. In a joint statement, the two leaders affirmed that they had agreed to "reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought". They also announced that they will launch a "strategic stability dialogue" to set "the basis for future arms control and risk reduction measures". The most important decision, however, is the return of ambassadors to their respective capitals, a step that in practice signifies the normalisation of diplomatic relations.

All this, however, without Biden giving up his criticism of the Russian regime and warning the Kremlin that the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, currently imprisoned in Russia, would have "devastating consequences" for Russia, but without specifying what they would be. The US president has thus decided to use the carrot-and-stick strategy with Putin, marking a notable difference with his predecessor, Donald Trump, who always avoided upsetting the Russian leader. In a way, the relationship with Russia (and also with China) is the litmus test of the new international relations strategy that the new US administration wants to promote, based on multilateralism and the defence of Western values. That is why Biden is placing so much emphasis on rebuilding the alliance with the European Union, since for this battle he needs allies in the international arena.

For the time being, Biden has managed to get Putin to lower his tone and even accept to be admonished in public. The Russian president, an old hand, also knows very well how far he can go in his strategy of tension and when it suits him to rein it in. In return he gets a photograph that puts Russia at the centre of world geopolitics. Now it remains to be seen whether the timid thaw seen in Geneva will continue and whether Biden manages to prevent the Russian regime from continuing to slide down the slope of authoritarianism. What happens with Navalny will be, in this sense, the key.

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