The White House’s goal from the Geneva meeting of Presidents Biden and Putin was not a reset, but rather to put up protective barriers to a more stable and predictable relationship. Angela Stint assesses the key agreements that emerged from Wednesday’s summit, potential areas for future cooperation, and where US and Russian priorities will continue to challenge the relationship.
Thanks to sound producer Gaston Rebredo, Chris McKenna, Fred Dawes, and Mary Wilkin for their support.
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BETA: With US-Russian relations at their post-Cold War low, President Biden and President Putin met on Wednesday in Geneva to lay some foundations for what those relations will look like under the Biden administration.
With us to assess how this first summit will unfold, sits Angela Stint, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies in Georgetown, and non-resident senior fellow here at the Brookings Institution. Angela, thanks so much for talking to us again.
STENT: Glad to be back on your show.
PETA: So, previous new US administrations often came with high hopes of restoring US-Russia relations, either making some breakthrough or turning in previous trajectories. The Biden White House seemed to make more modest expectations for this first meeting. What are their goals for how this might happen, and what is your assessment of how this might happen in general?
Stent: So when they came in, they said they weren’t trying to restore relations with Russia, but what they wanted to do was have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia. The specific goal of this summit, as they described themselves, is to erect protective barriers so that there is enough agreement with Russia that the United States does not have to spend much time responding to escalatory moves from Russia, to put out the fires. It grew out of Russia, and essentially that the administration could focus on its main foreign policy challenge, which of course is China. And based on what we heard from the two press conferences today, I think they made it happen.
Although both presidents criticized each other, they also emphasized that they had reached some basic agreements: that we would exchange ambassadors again – both ambassadors were called to their countries and then diplomacy could start again because we have a skeletal staff in the embassy In Moscow – then they agreed that they would start talks on strategic stability. This means entering into a system process under which different arms control officials talk, and the next arms control agreement – New START just renewed in 2026, but more than that – about other classes of weapons, perhaps about the Internet in there, about some territorial disputes. In other words, can we come to some basic understanding where we don’t have to fear escalation all the time and have a more predictable relationship?
Now, as both Biden and Putin have said, and Biden confirmed, of course, we’ll only know if this works in three or six months. I mean it takes time to get these agreements started, but I think they’ve come up with the basic agreement. They were friendly to each other. President Biden, of course, wanted to make sure Russia was no longer a toxic domestic issue as it was under President Trump, so no one would accuse him of going around Putin and saying how great Putin is. I think they have created, I think, a basic bottom line going forward.
PETA: And what is the significance of this meeting, the fact that it comes on the heels of both the G7 and NATO summits and, more broadly, the Biden administration’s renewal of US-European cooperation from a closer perspective?
Stent: I think that was a very important background to the meeting, which came four years after the president wanted the United States to leave NATO, who discredited the European Union and discredited the G7 in many ways. It was very important to show that not only America is back, but America really appreciates its allies. And so, I think you have a very productive G7 meeting. The NATO meeting produced a statement of which discussion of challenges from Russia was clearly a part. European Union in the same way. In other words, it is not just about show, but the fact of greater solidarity between allies. So, I think that sent a very important message to President Putin when Biden came there that the West is united on some of these issues, and in fact, the United States and the European Union have now committed to starting a dialogue about engaging with Russia.
BETA: You mentioned the renewal of some of the strategic arms control dialogues between the United States and Russia, where arms control has long been an area of common interest, where they’re usually able to move forward, regardless of other areas of friction. What are some of the priorities and future moves there, and what are some other areas where some collaboration might be applicable?
Stent: So, in the arms control area, you know, the New START treaty was renewed, but this is an agreement from 2011. Obviously, since then we have all the new classes of weapons. We have of course cyber, we have the space weapons issue. So, if you’re thinking about what’s coming after this treaty in 2026, hopefully there will be one. Again, between the two countries we have 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, and that’s the one thing that really unites the two countries: we have a huge responsibility. And as I said, even during the Cold War, even in the worst times, after 1972, we had arms control agreements. So one of the questions is, what systems do you include in this? Are you also talking about non-strategic nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons with shorter range? Since there was no treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces anymore, both sides withdrew from it. Will there be new deployments either from the Russian or American side, both in Europe and in Asia? Thus, there is a whole range of issues for strategic stability talks. And then, is it possible to mitigate regional crises, and have a mechanism to do that, so that we can avoid clashes?
Now, far from this kind of strict gun control, we know that they discussed Iran. Russia and the United States are working together as the Biden administration attempts to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal. They are making progress, but this will take some time.
Afghanistan is another area where the Russians are concerned about the impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the effect on their neighbors, and the rise of the Taliban.
Interestingly enough, the Russians had their own envoy for Syria in the day’s second discussion, the one with the larger group. And so, obviously there are areas that have to do with Syria, while maintaining corridors of humanitarian relief, perhaps for the future of Syria, but at least starting this kind of dialogue, which probably has to continue.
Then there are other issues like climate change. Vladimir Putin has recently acknowledged that this is a problem, and so this may be an area where they can work together, including on these issues as they emerge in the Arctic. This was another topic, at least, that was on today’s agenda.
So there are a number of areas where they can work together going forward. And I think they’ve laid again some kind of foundation going forward, and what they have to do is restore more of these channels of communication between different levels of people in the American and Russian government. Really missing for the past four years.
BETA: So, what are some of the areas that will be most vulnerable to potential conflict, and what are some of the barriers that the Biden administration will seek to put in place around these issues?
Stent: So, I think the first issue is cyber issues. You heard Putin in his press conference today saying, you know, there is no evidence that any of these things emanated from Russia. From the US point of view, it’s not just government-sponsored cyber hacks like the Solar Winds hack, it’s all ransomware as well. You know, people on the East Coast couldn’t get their hands on gasoline because of the Colonial pipeline hack and ransom. Meat processing plant. More than that, this kind of hacking for ransom has become a threat to the national security of the United States
Now, the US has identified cybercriminals that Russia is happy to harbor – they live in Russia – as long as they don’t attack Russian systems. And that’s something that’s going to be very difficult to come to terms with, but if there’s no deal here, you know the US could retaliate further. So, I think they’ve agreed, both presidents, to sit down and have some more discussions about the regulation of the Internet, but we’ll have to see how it goes.
And then I think another major issue is human rights and democracy. As President Biden said in his press conference, we wouldn’t be the United States if we didn’t talk about these issues. And you heard Putin back off, and say that the United States is violating human rights, by giving several examples, including the January 6 prosecutions of rioters at the Capitol. this is very difficult. The fate of Alexei Navalny – Putin went out of his way to talk about all the ways he broke the law. So, I think all of these issues are very difficult.
I think it is very difficult to reach an agreement, and Ukraine is another country. Putin reiterated that the problem in Ukraine is the failure of Ukrainians to comply with their commitments. This is clearly not the view of the United States, and therefore, again, it would be very difficult to attend any meeting of minds on this.
PETA: Beyond all of these specific policy areas that you detailed for us. What would be more important in your view, in terms of shaped the Biden administration’s approach to Russia in general? What would really matter in terms of their thinking, regardless of the problem area?
Stent: I mean, I think for them, you know, focusing on this kind of strategic nuclear dimension is very important, because if you don’t have a greater agreement on that and the possibility of working together, the risks of escalation really and unforeseen events are really high. So, I think that’s going to be kind of a cornerstone of all of this. I think they will, you know, hope so. Perhaps, reach an agreement on some regional issues. Maybe, outside of the climate, maybe something like WHO or something cooperating with the Russians, although that’s also a problem.
But I really think we’re going back to the barriers of protection. If they feel that they have established enough dialogue with Russia, that they do not have to constantly deal with unexpected events and provocations, I think that would really be a huge advantage, given what has happened in the past four years. It’s a low bar, but it’s no small feat.
PETA: Well, Angela, thanks so much for talking to us today and explaining that.
Stent: Thank you.