What kind of “constructive” steps can we expect from Biden? The meeting of the two presidents will take place immediately after the G7 and NATO summits. A special item on the NATO summit’s agenda is its reaction to the “aggressive actions of Russia”. It is unlikely that Biden will do a split, where at first he will fight “Russian aggression” and then immediately turn to a “constructive” agenda, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The world is waiting for the upcoming first summit between the presidents of Russia and the United States, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Biden, which should take place in mid-June. Is it possible that Russian-American relations will move to at least a minimal constructive agenda in bilateral relations? This is perhaps the key question that this meeting will be able to answer. Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Blinken had talks, as well as the heads of the security councils of the two countries. We can assume that they have worked out a range of issues on the agenda for the meeting of the presidents and a preliminary search for possible solutions. What will this summit look like, and what can we expect from it?
During election year in the United States, the Russian media occasionally voiced the most apocalyptic expectations of Joe Biden’s coming to power. According to this logic, the return of a Democratic administration to the White House was seen as a guarantee of a complete and final collapse in bilateral relations, which were already at an all-time low. Against this background, the very first serious step of President Biden — the extension of the START treaty without additional conditions a few days before its expiration — contrasted with this outlook. Donald Trump, as you know, blocked the extension of the treaty, making it conditional upon China’s involvement in the negotiation process, and also believing, in his business logic, that the Russian economy would not withstand a new arms race if the United States begins to build up its strategic nuclear arsenal again. Biden has chosen a different strategy. It is in line with traditional approaches to strategic stability, according to which the United States benefits from there being a smaller number of missiles in Russia (and in the USA), since the effectiveness of the eventual use of the missile defence system increases to a greater extent, and also more emphasis is placed on the superiority of the sea element of the US nuclear triad, as well as its conventional weapons.
Thus, Joe Biden from the very beginning of his presidency showed that despite the toxic image of Russia that has developed in the American establishment, he will not completely abandon bilateral contacts. In those cases where it suits the national interests of the United States, he will continue to pursue them.
The same logic can be traced in Biden’s subsequent steps. On the one hand, his famous words during an interview about “Putin the killer” once again recalled previous apocalyptic predictions. On the other hand, shortly afterwards, Biden made a phone call to Putin, which resulted in an offer for a bilateral face-to-face meeting, as well as an invitation to a virtual climate summit hosted by the American president.
In the latter case, it is also obvious that the United States is interested in involving Russia in the process of the proposed practical implementation of decarbonisation regulation measures (including taxes) in the near future. In the current situation, where the regulation of decarbonisation is becoming a key element of the global climate agenda, and where traditional environment protection measures (reforestation, clean water, etc.) practically cease to be of any serious importance according to the new logic, Russia’s acceptance of the new approach is undoubtedly in the interests of the USA.
As a result, we can conclude that Biden’s policy towards Russia began to line up on practically unrelated parallel tracks: while maintaining the toxic image of Russia and its harsh criticism in a large number of areas, business as usual is restored where it is beneficial for the United States, and dialogue and even cooperation are developing constructively and vigorously. So there hasn’t been a total breakup.
What is Russia’s optimal response to this? We agree that the trajectory towards a total breakup is not at all in the traditions of modern Russian diplomacy (at least, before the well-known statements of recent months about the readiness to break off relations with the EU and the Council of Europe). Earlier, and following Crimean reunification, Russian diplomacy has always tried to maintain relations and build a dialogue, at least with regards to the minimum range of issues in which the opposite side is showing an interest. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that the summit, according to this logic, has self-sufficient meaning, that it is important simply because it exists (if there is a summit — there are relations, if there is no summit — there are no relations).
Ukraine is a separate, big, issue on the bilateral agenda of Russia and the United States. The real expectation of a big war, which this spring was broadcast in the media through various “leaks” and “insiders”, and the strengthening of the military presence along the borders has made this problem especially acute in recent months. So far, fortunately, the war hasn’t happened, and we can talk about a certain de-escalation. Judging by the rhetoric of representatives of the Biden administration, they definitely take credit for having managed to “contain Russia from aggression” in Ukraine. Whether this is really so, the public will be able to find out only from diplomatic memoirs after many years. In any case, the topic of the Ukrainian conflict remains acute and, obviously, will be in the focus of the upcoming summit. The question is whether it is possible to move from mutual containment to more or less constructive approaches to resolve this conflict. This, we note, is not limited to Donbass alone, but also affects, for example, such issues as the humanitarian aspects of the halt in water supplies to Crimea.
There is one more aspect in anticipation of the summit — is it possible to wait for a pitfall after it? During the Trump administration, after almost every meeting between the two presidents — both the full-scale summit in Helsinki in 2018, and brief conversations on the side-lines of multilateral forums, the United States, after a short period of time, pursued new sanctions and other steps against Russia. It is clear that in part they could be explained by the internal political struggle in the United States at that time. But the fact remains that if at the meetings Trump said words what could be interpreted as constructive in bilateral relations, then immediately after his return home, after almost every summit, new anti-Russian measures were taken. Here we saw the classic combination of stick and carrot.
A separate question is, what kind of “constructive” steps can we expect from Biden? The meeting of the two presidents will take place immediately after the G7 and NATO summits. A special item on the NATO summit’s agenda is its reaction to the “aggressive actions of Russia”. It is unlikely that Biden will do a split, where at first he will fight “Russian aggression” and then immediately turn to a “constructive” agenda. Rather, it may be something else — in the context of the NATO summit, Biden can put forward tough conditions and demand a tough “road map” for their implementation. According to this logic, it is difficult to expect a positive agenda to flow from one track to another. But the situation, however, can change for the better.
In any case, we don’t have long to wait. The first Russian-American summit under the new US administration is undoubtedly a significant event in world politics, and the further dynamics of international relations will directly depend on its results.