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June 15, 2021

Europe

RUSSIA/US: Putin-Biden summit – an attempt to set framework for future ties

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 4 mins)
  • A summit between the US and Russian presidents on 16 June in Geneva is unlikely to bring any breakthroughs in bilateral relations, but symbolic confidence re-building agreements are possible.
  • In general, the summit aims to refresh personal ties between the two presidents and sketch a wider framework for conducting bilateral relations during Joe Biden’s presidency.
  • Multiple points of contention between Moscow and Washington (including its allies) could make any agreements hardly sustainable in the longer-term.

No breakthroughs expected

The pre-summit rhetoric and vast differences in the way both leaders view various bilateral and global issues suggest limited potential for any major agreements during the meeting. Instead, the summit – initiated by the US – likely aims to re-establish personal ties between the two presidents and sketch a wider framework for conducting bilateral relations during the Biden presidency. Washington is approaching the summit with the intention to forge more stable and predictable relations with Moscow, to scope out the potential for cooperation in areas of mutual interest, as well as to deter Russia’s (allegedly) malign activities towards the US or its allies.

The Russian side is not expecting breakthroughs either, although Putin expressed the hope that the meeting will lay the groundwork at least for a normalization of relations with the US. In contrast to the view from the White House, the Kremlin presents itself as a constructive international player that receives unfair treatment from the West, especially the US, for protecting its own interests. For Putin, the summit in Geneva will be the first international trip since early 2020, offering high-profile visibility ahead of the State Duma election in September. While no joint press conference is planned after the summit, the Russian state-owned media will seize the opportunity to display Russia’s great power status and its allegedly indispensable role – together with the US – in addressing various global challenges.

Beyond deep-rooted disagreements on multiple fronts – which have pushed US- Russia relations to the lowest point in years – strategic stability is one area where both sides could seek greater cooperation. In recent years, both countries have withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, which lowers transparency and heightens risks. Even though Moscow and Washington extended the New START Treaty until February 2026 earlier this year, it does not cover a range of modern weapons systems as well as emerging nuclear powers such as China. However, given the significance and complexity of the issue, it might be too optimistic to expect any quick progress in this area.

Both sides have mentioned tackling climate change, fighting (cyber)terrorism, and efforts to contain the pandemic and resolve various regional conflicts/issues as potential topics of discussion. As with strategic stability, no quick breakthroughs should be expected in either of those areas. In fact, even small confidence-rebuilding steps between the two countries – such as the proposed exchange of cyber-criminals or a partial reset of diplomatic relations – would be a success.

Political and economic tensions unlikely to abate

Any hard-won progress reached during the summit could be swiftly overturned by existing or new political challenges, which have abounded in recent months. The Moscow-backed Alexander Lukashenko regime in Belarus is becoming increasingly unpredictable and dangerous, while Russian military activity along Ukraine’s eastern border and the Black Sea remains a source of concern, particularly ahead of large-scale military exercises planned for September. Moreover, Russia has not yet dispelled international concerns about the use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexey Navalny, nor taken action to prevent cyber-attacks allegedly emanating from the country. Meanwhile, Russia’s domestic political environment is becoming increasingly restrictive and potential post-election protests could trigger new rounds of violence against demonstrators in the autumn.

Amid tense and relations with the West, Russia is seeking to shield its economy from potential new US sanctions by accelerating de-dollarization. The country’s finance minister Anton Siluanov has recently announced intentions to fully ditch dollar holdings from Russia’s USD 186bn National Welfare Fund (NWF), which account for around 35% of the fund’s liquid assets. The de- dollarization drive is also taking place in the energy sector, with Minister of Energy Alexander Novak declaring that the country’s oil export contracts would also fully shift away from dollars. Such actions from Moscow – declarative or real – signal that Russia is preparing for continued confrontation with the US.

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