President Joe Biden meets on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and it’s been decades since the leaders of the two countries approached a summit so rife with tension, dread, and possibilities.
The wild card this time is the “possibilities.” Both leaders agree that relations between Washington and Moscow are at their “lowest point” since the Cold War. Contrary to hopes a mere decade ago that a democratic Russia might enter the fold of the European Union and the Western-led global economy, Putin’s posture as a strong world leader seems to pivot on his refusal to appear remotely conciliatory. His assertive actions in the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency—his annexation of Crimea, armed incursions of eastern Ukraine, and aid to Bashar al-Assad’s murderousness in Syria, which, together, crushed all plans for continuing the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations—have since been intensified by relentless cyberattacks, including an attempt to tilt the 2016 election; the killing of Russian dissidents or former spies on foreign territory; and other steps to foment Western disunity and delegitimize democracy, sometimes with startling success.
So how could the summit hold any possibilities for Russian-American diplomacy, comity, or peace?
A bit of history is worth recalling. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed a limited nuclear test ban treaty and hooked up the “hot line,” allowing the two leaders to communicate directly with each other for the first time—both just months after they nearly blew each other to smithereens in the Cuban missile crisis.
In 1967–68, U.S. and Soviet officials co-authored the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, over the next several years, worked together to nudge nearly every other country to sign it, even as their own nuclear arms race took off and the Vietnam War—pitting American soldiers against a Soviet-armed ally—escalated.
In those same years, U.S. and Russian diplomats undertook the first nuclear arms control talks and kept them going for nearly the next half-century, through various phases of the Cold War and beyond, with almost no interruption, signing a long string of documents known as the Interim Agreement on Strategic Offensive Arms, the ABM Treaty, the Vladivostok Accords, SALT II, the INF Treaty, START, and New START—each one increasingly restrictive and intrusive. Along with various unilateral arms cuts made by both sides, those agreements resulted in a 90 percent reduction in their nuclear arsenals.
The pattern persists, to some degree, even now. Just two weeks after Biden’s inauguration, he and Putin agreed to extend for another five years the Obama-era New START—which was about to expire—even as the two presidents called each other “killers,” and even as their mutual hostility on other fronts seemed implacable.
Why? Because it was in their mutual interests to extend the treaty and thus keep a verifiable clamp on the size of each other’s nuclear arsenals. For all his (quite sincere) talk about human rights and democratic values, Biden—whose front-row dealings in foreign policy date back nearly 50 years—is a pragmatist. For all his nostalgic bluster about restoring the Soviet empire, Putin—whose career as a KGB officer straddled the Cold War and after—is a pragmatist, too, and though his growl may be louder than that of the Americans right now, his teeth are less sharp, and he probably knows this.
In the run-up to the summit, Biden has taken care to express his pragmatic side more openly. In a recent press conference, he described Putin as “bright,” “tough,” and a “worthy adversary,” adding, “I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses. And if he chooses not to cooperate […] then we will respond […] in kind.”
Asked whether he still thinks Putin is a “killer,” as he’d said only a few months earlier, Biden replied, “Look, when I was asked that question on air, I answered it honestly. I don’t think it matters a whole lot in terms of this next meeting we’re about to have.” He also said, “It’s not about trusting; it’s about agreeing. When you write treaties with adversaries, you don’t say, ‘I trust you.’ You say, ‘This is what I expect.’ ”
Biden will meet Putin in Geneva after several days of summits with U.S. allies in the G-7 and NATO. The communiqué issued after the NATO meeting, which dealt with military matters, noted that China posed “challenges” but labeled Russia, more harshly, as a “threat.” Nonetheless, Biden stressed that every NATO member “thanked me for meeting with Putin now” and “thought it was thoroughly appropriate that I do.” He made this point mainly to preempt right-wing criticism at home that even meeting with Putin amounted to appeasement and that striking any kind of deal with him would be worse.
It is doubtful that Biden and Putin will emerge from their meeting all smiles, hand in hand, to announce a re-reset in Russian-American relations. But there is reason to believe that even Putin—prone though he is to destabilize the foundations of Western alliances and democracy—values stability and predictability in realms related to his survival.
Arms control can be a useful device for enhancing that sort of stability. During much of the Cold War, arms control talks served as a token for diplomacy when tensions were too fierce to allow talks about anything else. As the talks progressed, tensions relaxed, relations were built, modes of trust and assurance were tested and confirmed—eventually (and, yes, this oversimplifies matters greatly), the Cold War ended.
There are some signs that Biden may try restarting arms control talks, just to get some civil discussion going, while still leveling criticism and demands on the issues that divide the two countries. It is at least intriguing that Biden recently assembled a group of Russian experts—former officials in the Obama and Trump administrations—to discuss how to approach, and what might come out of, his upcoming meeting with Putin. These officials included Fiona Hill, a former top Russia specialist in Trump’s National Security Council who often disagreed with Trump; Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia; and Rose Gottemoeller, Obama’s chief negotiator of New START.
All of these experts, and others who attended, sport no illusions about Putin or his aims; but they see value in serious diplomacy, especially in arms control diplomacy.
Biden and Putin have common or converging interests on a number of issues—nuclear nonproliferation (including keeping Iran from building atomic bombs), counterterrorism, climate change, combating pandemics, and cybersecurity (though that’s a particularly tough one, as neither side wants to give up its ability to hack other countries in the name of national security).
No great progress will likely be made on any of these issues in Geneva this week. Even if Biden or Putin were personally inclined to make great progress (which they don’t seem to be), political interests, at home and abroad, would inhibit them from moving too quickly to paper up their differences. But if they were to announce the beginning of talks about something, anything, that would be progress enough.