U.S. President Joe Biden once recalled looking Vladimir Putin in the eye during a private meeting and saying, “I don’t think you have a soul,” to which the Russian leader replied, “We understand each other.”
The two veteran politicians are no strangers. They have decades of political experience and share a preference for aviator sunglasses, but don’t expect the highly anticipated summit between the two presidents in Geneva on Wednesday to thaw frozen U.S.-Russian relations.
“There’s no appetite for a reset on either side,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow and director of European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who is based in Washington, D.C.
Kupchan said “Biden goes into this meeting with eyes wide open,” knowing that on some of the most contentious issues — aggression in Ukraine, cybersecurity and a crackdown on Russian dissidents like Alexei Navalny — “he is unlikely to get Putin to budge.”
So why a summit?
Talking is better than not, according to both sides. Putin acknowledged in an NBC interview on Friday that “the bilateral relationship has deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years.”
The Russian president who supported — some say manipulated — former U.S. president Donald Trump described Biden as “radically different” and said he hoped “there will not be any impulse-based movement” on Biden’s behalf.
But Biden has a long list of grievances, accusing Russia of inflaming conflicts abroad and brutally suppressing opposition at home. The U.S. wants “a stable and predictable relationship” going forward, said Biden, but warned he won’t treat Putin with kid gloves.
“We’re not seeking conflict with Russia … but I’ve been clear: the United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way if the Russian government engages in harmful activities,” Biden said in Mildenhall, England, at the start of G7 meetings this past weekend.
Meeting is about ‘world security’
White House officials say that when he meets face to face with Putin in an ornate 18th-century Swiss villa, Biden will speak directly to U.S. election interference, further aggression in Ukraine, recent cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure linked to hackers in Russia and the poisoning of dissidents.
Some Republicans have labelled Biden “weak” for even offering Putin an international platform. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse called the summit Putin’s “reward,” concluding the Russian leader will use it to project an image, especially domestically, that he is on an equal footing with the new U.S. president.
That’s short-sighted, says Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst and senior associate at PONARS Eurasia, at George Washington University in D.C.
“I don’t think it should be about rewarding or not rewarding. It should be about world security, that’s what’s at stake,” she said. Lipman, a long-time political analyst in Moscow, describes current relations between Russia and the U.S. as “dangerous” and a “new Cold War.”
“Not meeting, not talking at all might lead to an even deeper confrontation with really dramatic results,” she said. “Not just for the two countries, but maybe for the world.”
U.S attempts to contain or influence Vladimir Putin have been mixed at best. Biden is the fifth U.S. president to meet him, and each one has tried to unlock the Russian leader’s psyche and predict his strategy.
George W. Bush famously said that by looking Putin in the eye, he got a sense of his soul, and found him “straightforward and trustworthy.”
As U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton reached for a “reset” with the Kremlin in 2009, trotting out a gimmicky red button at a news conference with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Five years later, Russia invaded Crimea and encroached on eastern Ukraine, prompting swift international sanctions, including from Canada, many of which are still in place today.
Today, both the Russian and U.S. ambassadors have left their posts, returning to their home countries after U.S intelligence agencies accused Russia of interfering in the 2020 election.
WATCH | Biden addresses findings of Russian interference in 2020 U.S. election:
In an April interview with ABC News, Biden was asked, “Do you think Putin’s a killer?” Biden replied, “I do.”
The cumulative effect is severely strained diplomatic relations.
“Biden will not be an easy partner for Putin,” predicted Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow.
Putin liked Trump but he turned out to be unreliable from the Kremlin’s perspective, weakened by the pressures of U.S. domestic politics, says Kortunov. The Russian president will be calculating if Biden is a “good investment.”
“Biden can be tough on Putin. He might be very critical of Russia,” Kurtonov said, but the question for Putin is whether Biden can deliver on any commitments of mutual interest, “and that question is still open.”
Leading up to the summit, Putin has publicly said that he is not going to discuss Russia’s domestic policy with President Biden.
“We have no disagreements with the United States,” Putin told a live television audience just two months ago. “They only have one disagreement: they want to stifle our development.”
‘Biden wants to lower the temperature’
The White House is downplaying the “deliverables” for improving the relationship, but on the weekend, Biden inferred the two countries might find common ground on “strategic stability” (like upholding arms control agreements), the pandemic, climate change and even a tacit understanding not to harbour cybersecurity criminals in their respective countries.
“Biden wants to lower the temperature. He wants to make the relationship less poisonous, and then maybe down the road, this can create space for tackling the tougher issues,” said Kupchan, who shuttled between Washington, Kyiv and Moscow as U.S. president Barack Obama’s senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council.
The summit is about putting in early work to get to the bigger challenges, like a rising China, says Kupchan, who calculates the Biden administration may be looking for openings to begin to woo Russia away from China.
“Is Putin going to play ball on that front? No. Might it bear fruit over the next few years? Possibly,” he said.
Important to ‘restart a dialogue’
On Wednesday, Switzerland will again be at the centre of international intrigue. It was in Geneva that president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, met in 1985 to negotiate a landmark agreement on arms control.
Don’t expect that kind of impact this time.
“Anything but a clear failure should be regarded as success if they simply restart a dialogue,” said Kortunov.
Also, don’t expect to watch the two test each other at a joint press conference — the White House has nixed that. Biden said Sunday that he didn’t want to be diverted by the media dissecting their body language and dwelling on “did they shake hands” and “who talked the most.”
“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference to try to embarrass each other,” Biden added.
Most likely it was a strategic decision to deprive Putin of another photo op next to a U.S. president, a kind of exorcism of the ghost of the 2018 Helsinki Summit where Trump, standing next to Putin, undercut U.S. intelligence on 2016 election meddling and said he didn’t believe Russia was to blame.
This summit will be far different — more socially and politically distanced, as befits the times.
“I think a lot can go wrong,” said Lipman, “but it’s important that no matter how different the stances of the two presidents, no matter how deep the distrust, that they try and succeed to remain civil.”