President Joe Biden boards Air Force One. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Biden heads home with a mixed bag from Geneva

The summit with Russian President Putin elicited some modest progress, but on the big security questions, a missed opportunity.

The Biden-Putin summit today in Geneva showed both sides were willing to make modest progress in tamping down the rank hysteria and finger-pointing that has characterized the U.S.-Russia relationship over the past several years. 

At a White House briefing for reporters on June 7, Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan laid out the administration’s expectations for what was to come in Geneva:

At the end of the day, what we are looking to do is for the two presidents to be able to send a clear signal … to their teams on questions of strategic stability so that we can make progress in arms control and other nuclear areas to reduce tension and instability in that aspect of the relationship. 

All reasonable enough. And so, by Sullivan’s metric, how did the two presidents do? 

I’d venture to say not too badly, if only because expectations were not very high to begin with. Start with the good news: Biden and Putin agreed to send their respective Ambassadors back to their posts. The U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, had been recalled back in April for what were said to be “consultations” with the White House. Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was recalled to Moscow in March after Biden agreed with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos’ characterization of Putin as “a killer.” Another piece of good news: According to Putin, the two sides did come to an agreement to “start negotiations” on cybersecurity.

But for all that, the list of issues that were not resolved is quite a good deal longer than the list of issues that were successfully addressed. Worryingly, these include progress on reversing President Trump’s decision to remove Washington from the INF and Open Skies treaties, although Biden’s announcement that the two countries will soon launch a Bilateral Strategic Security Dialogue is to be welcomed and may be a step in the right direction. Yet there seemed to be no progress made toward a settlement in eastern Ukraine, on much needed security cooperation in Afghanistan, or on the reestablishment of consular services in both countries. 

But overall the summit was a missed opportunity because what the moment called for — and what both sides seemed unable and unwilling to contemplate — is a regional settlement, a kind of new, but just, Yalta, that takes into consideration the security requirements of the United States, the Western European powers, the Russians, and the less powerful eastern and central European states which lay in between. 

Part of the problem with getting to a stable post-new cold war settlement is discursive, i.e., in the language we choose to talk about the problem of pan-European security. Because the United States  believes that spheres of influence are, in former secretary of state John Kerry’s words “archaic,” we need to come up with a language that all parties find acceptable. And any discussion over such a pan-European settlement should begin with the fact that nations require and are entitled to — if not a sphere of influence wherein they impose their will on smaller states in their near-abroad, but a genuine sphere of security.

This would require compromises between the United States and Russia over NATO expansion and Russia’s support for the indigenous uprising in the Donbas. One way forward would be agreement on re-opening and re-vitalizing channels of communication and conciliation between Russia, Europe and Washington, including, but not limited to, the NATO-Russia Council, the G8, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE.

These channels of cooperation take on an even greater importance because the respective weltanschauung of the Americans and Russians are utterly incompatible at present: the Americans see themselves as a pillar of the so-called liberal international order, while the Russians claim to adhere to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries as embedded in the UN Charter and Treaty of Westphalia. But those differences do not, and indeed cannot, preclude dialogue and diplomacy — nor do they exclude the possibility of compromise. But this would require, to borrow a phrase from Mikhail Gorbachev, “‘a de-ideologization of interstate relationships.”

But, as we saw in Geneva, Biden and Putin were unable to get to such a point. As such, the job of deescalating the new cold war now falls to the French and Germans who intuitively understand that a happy future for Europe is unlikely as long as East-West tensions remain as high as they are currently.

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