“This is about our common self-interest,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a press conference after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16. His observation speaks for itself.
The long-awaited Geneva summit has not brought about earth-shaking changes in US-Russian relations. Neither party expects to take many steps to repair the relationship that is currently in its worst state in decades.
Moscow and Washington see each other as competitors, and they will continue to do so in the future. For strategic and ideological reasons, there is no way to bypass it. “Reset” is a thing of the past. Donald Trump’s favor with Russia, especially the ill-fated summit in Helsinki in July 2018, will only make things worse.
In contrast, the three-hour meeting between Putin and Biden seemed to proceed relatively smoothly. With the threshold set so low, the two leaders agreed to take some small steps that, if implemented, would lower the temperature between Washington and Moscow. This is a simple formula: put the controversial issue aside and pursue areas where some concessions and desirability can be made.
The summit issued a short joint statement, emphasizing the achievements of Russia-US strategic arms control cooperation earlier this year. In the call on January 26, Putin and Biden agreed to extend the new starting point treaty that was originally scheduled to expire in February for another five years. This gives both parties time to develop an alternative agreement.
In addition, the two heads of state agreed to send ambassadors back to their respective capitals to restore normal diplomatic relations. The two diplomats were recalled by their government from March to April, ostensibly for “consulting.”
The test case where participation can go is the Great Middle East. Several issues were discussed during the meeting. In Syria, the US government hopes to adopt a coordinated strategy to provide humanitarian assistance, possibly through a Syrian-Turkish border crossing.
The Iran nuclear deal is another issue raised, and Washington and Moscow can cooperate. The Biden administration has reopened negotiations with Tehran on the way the United States will return to the joint comprehensive action plan. As one of the signatories of the agreement and Iran’s partner, Russia has obvious interests.
After Afghanistan withdraws, it may become another area of common interest. Neither the United States nor Russia wants to see the Taliban return to power in Kabul. With the withdrawal of Western troops, Moscow is more worried about the surge of radicalism in the region than the expansionism of the United States, and the possibility of cooperation is greater.
If the Russians and Americans find common ground on these key issues, history will make a favorable judgment on the Geneva summit.
However, there is no room for agreement on basic issues. Although they are pragmatic, the Biden team stated that they are unwilling to let the Kremlin slack in its fight against the domestic opposition in Russia or the war in Ukraine. The United States must strike a delicate balance: on the one hand, it adheres to democratic principles, on the other hand, it engages with Russia as a great power. Biden called Putin a “valuable opponent”, which is a kind of music for the Kremlin because it shows respect.
However, Washington will not turn to real politics and abandon values and principles. What’s striking is that the summit has hardly achieved any results on Ukraine, which dominated the headlines a few weeks ago. There is simply no room for the geopolitical trade-offs Putin might wish to see between the United States and Russia.
Therefore, Moscow’s establishment will continue to view the United States with suspicion and accuse it of promoting “regime change” and “color revolutions” as it has done since the mid-2000s. At the same time, the United States sees Russia as the standard bearer of global authoritarianism on par with China.
Part of Biden’s mission in Geneva is to convey a message that the US government will counter any attempts by the Russians to cause trouble in the US, whether through cyber attacks or other forms of political intervention, such as in the preparatory stage. By the 2016 presidential election.
Can this minimalist formula for bilateral relations, advocated by Biden but also endorsed by the Kremlin, work? Only time will give the answer.
The hostility and distrust of the two sides provided sufficient reasons for suspicion. The new tensions between Moscow and Washington did not take much time. Although the United States is more willing to pay attention to China and the Kremlin is more willing to focus on supporting domestic political support, this competition has formed its own life and is very institutionalized.
But one point of Geneva is that conditional participation is not a reason for failure. It is not unreasonable that Biden and Putin came out of the summit with obvious optimism. Russia got something it wanted: to be regarded as a peer by the United States. The Biden administration also benefited from the meeting originally proposed in April. The American president seems to stand up against Putin, but he may also make promises.
From a larger perspective, the era of failed resets between Russia and the United States during Bush, Obama, and Trump is over. As Russian foreign policy observer Vladimir Frolov pointed out, what we have now is “respectful hostility.” This situation is likely to prove to be lasting.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.