20 years under Putin: a timeline

On June 16, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva for a bilateral meeting and talks. IMR has rounded up the immense range of reactions and analysis from Western and Russian policymakers, journalists, and experts to make sense of the real and perceived outcomes of the summit.

 

June 16, 2021: Joe Biden meets with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Photo: kremlin.ru (via WikiMedia Commons).

 

Anticipation surrounding the event was high, with commentators eager to compare the summit to those of Soviet days past, or the 2018 Trump-Putin meeting in Oslo. While some concrete action was taken—both sides agreed that their ambassadors would go back to their posts in Moscow and Washington, and a new U.S.-Russia expert working group committed to nuclear arms control was announced—the consensus was that only time would tell, and it was too soon to know the real outcome of a summit that has been called everything from “positive” to “disturbing.”  

>> Read further about the predicted outcomes of this summit in IMR’s Why Ukraine will be one of the key topics at the Biden-Putin summit by Mykola Vorobiov.

 

Policymakers 

There was a rare joint statement from the White House and the Kremlin, the U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability, noting that the extension of the New START Treaty “exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control.” It reaffirmed the “principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and announced an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.

U.S. Congress Democrats were relatively pleased with the outcome of the summit and relieved with Biden’s stance toward Russia compared to the perceptions of U.S.-Russian relations under former president Donald Trump. 

  • Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, “President Biden did his job and stood up for the American people by making clear that the United States will respond to Kremlin aggression,” calling it a “reality check for Putin and a welcome departure from the past four years of Trump’s coddling of the Kremlin…” 
  • Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the Europe and Regional Security Cooperation SFRC Subcommittee, noted that “President Biden... [sent] a strong message that his administration will not turn a blind eye to Putin’s belligerence,” but she also welcomed the reinstatement of ambassadors as a “constructive step.” 

U.S. Congress Republicans struck a different tone, calling the summit disturbing, and Biden weak, warning of serious future geopolitical consequences for not striking harder against Russia.  

  • Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and John Barrasso (R-WY), members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote that Biden has “signaled the U.S. is back to repeating the same decades of Democrat geopolitical policy failures.” Referring to the Biden administration’s decision to waive additional sanctions on the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, they noted that this “weakness only encourages Putin’s aggression; he’s not paying a significant price for his malign activities.” 
  • Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) deemed Biden’s views of Putin “dangerous,” adding that “Biden has miscalculated who he is dealing with” and brought in China when he noted, “The leadership of Russia and China are beyond shame. They will only respond to pressure. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the dynamics America faces regarding Russia and China.”

Russian officials also weighed in on the results of the summit, but their perceptions were markedly different from their U.S. counterparts.

  • Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Putin, said that the Russian side had initially been warning against high expectations for the summit, and now, based on Putin’s own assessment, the result can be deemed as being “on the plus side.” 
  • Sergei Lavrov, foreign affairs minister, wrote an op-ed criticizing the United States for follow-up “warnings” and “threats” that Moscow must accept the rules of the game that had been offered to it in Geneva. He underscored that the West’s rules are purposefully vague, which leads to “arbitrariness” against perceived “trespassers.” “By ramping up sanctions and other measures of unlawful pressure on sovereign governments, the West imposes totalitarianism in world affairs, takes an imperial, neo-colonial position toward other countries, [as if saying] ‘implement the prescribed model of democracy at home, and do not worry about democracy in foreign affairs, we will decide everything, so you behave yourself, otherwise we will punish you.’”
  • Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, concluded that the summit was the “first step toward a detente and an ‘overload’ relief in bilateral relations.” While expressing hope for further restoration, including resuming parliamentary dialogue between the Duma and the U.S. Congress, he cautioned against “euphoria.” 

 

Think Tanks 

Atlantic Council: The Biden-Putin staredown, by Alexander Vershbow, Maria Snegovaya, and John Herbst

  • Snegovaya noted that reducing the talks to two sessions instead of three signified “mutual suspicion,” suggesting that “existing tensions between Russia and the US will continue.” Vershbow pointed out that “keeping the meeting short may have been meant to show that the US is not ready to normalize relations.” 
  • In terms of optics, the summit might be seen as beneficial for the Putin regime. The Russian public was sent the message that it was Biden who needed to meet Putin: “The Kremlin always underlines that the meeting was initiated by the US side,” said Snegovaya. 
  • According to Herbst, overall, Putin had a “slight advantage coming out of Geneva,” but “the real game is coming up.” Vershbow’s take is that the summit was positive and business-like: “there were no breakthroughs, but no fireworks.” The general conclusion was “don’t bet on a reset.” 

Brookings Institution: Did Biden succeed with Putin? Check back in six months by Steven Pifer

  • Did the meeting put the U.S. closer to a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia? The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. 
  • Pifer believes the meeting accomplished what both Biden and Putin said they wanted to do, including laying out red lines and identifying areas of potential cooperation, such as strategic stability. But the “hard work of building on the presidents’ discussions” has only begun, and the results will become clearer in the coming months.

Center of European Policy Analysis: Post-Summits—What Have We Learned?

  • Andrei Soldatov: “The Biden press conference made clear why Putin was so nervous. To Putin, great power status means Russia is granted the right to be consulted about other countries’ business, whether it be North Korea, Iran, or Afghanistan. That is why Putin’s entourage included the chief of the general staff and officials in charge of Ukraine and Syria. Instead, Biden chose to talk, at least in public, only about the problems in Russia or what was coming from Russia. The result is that Putin remained in a box marked ‘Russia problem.’ It’s a rather big box, but still a box.”

 

Media Outlets*

New York Times:

After Putin Meeting, a Biden Trait Shows Itself Again: Stubborn Optimism

  • “It was vintage Putin, and it seemed to reinforce the idea that the high-profile diplomatic exchange on the banks of Lake Geneva had done little to change a relationship that has deteriorated for years.”
  • “Mr. Biden’s response to his Russian adversary underscored a persistent feature of his presidency: a stubborn optimism that critics say borders on worrisome naïveté and that allies insist is an essential ingredient to making progress.” 

Sorry, Biden. Putin Honestly Could Not Care Less

  • In an NYT op-ed, Kommersant correspondent Elena Chernenko writes that despite Biden calling Putin a “killer,” Russia accepted the U.S. invitation for the summit because “besides the chance to de-escalate tensions, there’s one very good reason: Mr. Putin has nothing to fear from Mr. Biden. Enduringly popular and freshly buoyed by the quashing of the opposition, Russia’s president has ample cause to feel secure. Whatever the American president might say in Geneva—or his administration do, by way of sanctions—will not affect Mr. Putin’s rule in Russia.” 

Washington Post:

Biden’s strategy of pessimism ekes out progress with Putin

  • “With expectations set low and pushed even lower by the talks’ ending earlier than expected, Putin and Biden emerged from the meetings with a pleasant surprise: incremental progress on a handful of issues.” 

To Russians, Putin got what he wanted from Biden: some ‘great power’ respect

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Geneva on Wednesday with nothing to lose, because he long ago gave up trying to seek the West’s good opinion.” He “flew home with just about everything he wanted—a summit that showcased his leadership of one of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers and acknowledged that, without him, global security goes nowhere.” 

Wall Street Journal:

Biden’s Tests for Putin, and Vice Versa (Editorial Board) 

  • Russia is not the existential rival the Soviet Union was in the Cold War, “but its ambitions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and cyberspace continue to collide with the U.S. Those threats must be answered firmly.” 

Financial Times:

Biden politely reads riot act to Putin

  • “So how do we measure whether Biden is making progress with Putin?” By noting what Putin and Russia do not do in the future, after a summit filled with warnings from Biden. Compared to Putin’s 2018 press conference with Trump, when Putin “could not contain his smirk, Putin’s solo press event in Geneva seemed notably subdued.”

Summit Over, Putin and Biden Cite Gains, but Tensions Are Clear 

  • “Mr. Biden has argued that the world is at an ‘inflection point,’ with an existential battle underway between democracy and autocracy. But with Mr. Putin at the vanguard of the autocrats, the American leader faced criticism from some quarters for even taking part in the summit.”

Guardian:

It used to feel that life hung in the balance during US-Russia summits. No longer 

  • The power has shifted since Soviet times; the world has changed. The “Biden-Putin meeting offered surface continuity with aspects of that past, but crucially not the content. The US and Russia remain major powers, but each is diminished and must operate in the new global context.” 

 

Russia experts 

  • Michael Klimmage, fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote that even though expectations were low, there is potential to build on the summit in the future: “Credit where credit’s due: Biden and his team have concluded a summit with Russia that could have gone much worse—but could not realistically have gone better. Biden’s press conference forms a coherent and plausible foundation for future negotiations. Uphill yes: impossible no.” 
  • Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, struck a harder line: “Actually, Biden made Putin look small. Biden stood up for democracy while Putin played boring rhetorical games. Biden stuck to a sound agenda: stability (to the degree Putin makes it possible), resist Putin’s aggression, and call out the Kremlin for its repression at home.”
  • Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, despite low expectations was cautiously pleased and looking toward the future: “#PutinBiden meeting in #Geneva has cleared the low bar set for it. Constructive tone displayed by both presidents in their post-summit pressers is a welcome bonus. Not a reset, but maybe better managed confrontation lies ahead. Next 6-12 months will show whether it’s possible.”
  • Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics: With the arrival of the Biden administration, the U.S. and Russia returned to the old relationship model and to the old list of problems… The reflex, or rather, the instinct of self-preservation took over. And so far, it has not allowed another reflex [of the United States]—unlimited domination—to break out.”
  • Yevgeny Minchenko, founder of Minchenko Consulting: The issue was “how to stop confrontation, which had reached an indecent state. The presidents made an attempt. The return of the ambassadors is a good signal. The rhetoric is calm enough, which is good. What happens next, we will see. I am not optimistic.”
  • Kirill Rogov, political commentator: “In principle, to communicate all [his] thoughts, Biden did not need to fly to Geneva. He could have said this in front of any tree in his garden with great success. Because President Putin not only does not believe [it], but does not even believe that Biden does.”

 

* Russian media outlets are not included in this roundup, because the bulk of their coverage doesn’t offer assessment.

 

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