The upcoming summit is unlikely to lead to breakthroughs and major achievements in Russian-American relations. However, they may well close their not-very-best page. The confrontation between Moscow and Washington will continue in many directions. This does not negate the need for reliable “support levels” in the event of another collapse, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev.
The upcoming summit of the presidents of Russia and the United States has raised hopes for an improvement in Russian-American relations. Similar hopes have accompanied most of these summits over the past quarter-century. Nevertheless, historical experience shows that excessive optimism is hardly appropriate. Many summits were held in a positive manner, but did not lead to the resolution of fundamental contradictions in the relationship between the two countries. Moreover, over time, such contradictions only worsened. It is necessary to soberly assess the specifics of the current political moment and the tasks of the foreign policy of both countries.
The very fact that the summit is being held should be seen as positive. The meeting in Geneva has every chance to become more successful than the Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki in 2018. Unlike his predecessor, the current US president is much less burdened by domestic political restrictions. He is not waging a war with the establishment, he is not linked with an election scandal and accusations of “collusion with Russia”. Possible agreements between the two presidents, albeit modest, have chances for further elaboration. Nevertheless, Russia and the United States are approaching the summit in strategic confrontation mode. The set of fundamental contradictions is impressive. The key ones include the following: Euro-Atlantic security, the post-Soviet space, the Ukrainian issue, the situation in Syria, cyber security, sovereignty and interference in internal affairs, democracy and human rights.
In addition, there are topics that are simply necessary to discuss. Principal among them is arms control. The New START extension can be considered as a step forward, but it only provides a five-year delay for the development of new agreements. This is a ridiculous timeframe, given the collapse of the INF Treaty and other disarmament regimes, the emergence of new modern weapons and technologies. Moreover, in a number of areas, Russia is ahead and will definitely not sit down at the negotiating table to beg for concessions. There is no doubt that the United States will be able to balance Russia’s potential with its resources. Ultimately, both sides will be interested in at least minimal predictability, so a request for new treaties may well take shape. The summit in Geneva can jump-start a dialogue, at least at the ad hoc level.
An important background factor for the summit is the growing confrontation between the United States and China. Washington views Beijing as a more dangerous and difficult adversary than Russia. In arms control negotiations, China’s growing military capabilities are becoming an important variable. The Trump administration has tried to persuade Moscow to engage in a trilateral arms control discussion involving Beijing. The idea was rejected by both Eurasian powers. Biden’s approach is more accurate, but China will remain within the American arms control vision.
The Americans have other concerns about China as well. For a long time, Washington turned a blind eye to the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. The Americans believed that such a partnership would be declarative and would not pose a big threat. Russia and China can be dealt with independently; they will not act together against the United States. Apparently, Washington’s point of view is now changing. The close partnership between the Russian Federation and the PRC is beginning to be perceived as a threat, and the breakdown of such rapprochement should be a task of the US diplomacy. However, the United States can hardly offer Moscow any serious alternative. Levels of trust are extremely low and recent historical experience is controversial.
For Russia, the United States is a long-term adversary for two reasons. The first is an explicit or latent threat of the use of force, given the military might of the United States and its allies. The second is ideological pressure on Russia and the threat of “hacking” its political system. To a certain extent, the fears and perceptions of the two sides are similar. The United States, too, fears Russian power, not to mention the much-hyped theme of “interference.” However, objectively, the American potential is significantly higher than Russia’s. The cost of any mistake for Russia will be higher, which requires a more sophisticated and intelligent policy, both domestically and internationally.
The factor of relations with China is also important for Russia. The level of partnership with Beijing is a serious achievement of Russian diplomacy. The big question for all players is how exactly the further configuration will take shape? A bipolar system with strict allied obligations between the Russian Federation and the PRC is one thing. The other is a more flexible multipolar system, with fragile guarantees, but wider room for manoeuvre.
The upcoming summit is unlikely to lead to breakthroughs and major achievements in Russian-American relations. However, they may well close their not-very-best page. The confrontation between Moscow and Washington will continue in many directions. This does not negate the need for reliable “support levels” in the event of another collapse.