June 16, 2021 9:50 am
The only certainty is that the Biden-Putin summit will be the antithesis of the first meeting between the Russian president and Donald Trump in 2018, in Helsinki. The only point in common will be the neutrality of the headquarters, Geneva today, the Finnish capital then. But otherwise, the spectacle of an American president clearly dominated by the Kremlin boss has traumatized Washington, and Biden is well aware of the trap.
It is the president of the United States who strongly wanted the meeting, and this in itself is an important element. Biden did not measure his words towards Putin after his arrival at the White House – we recall that he even called him “a murderer” – but at the same time he wanted to quickly organize this first Russian-American summit.
By contrast, there is currently no meeting with China, the United States‘ main rival, especially after the extremely tense contact in Alaska last March between Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Chinese head of international affairs Yang Jiechi. Since then, Washington has increased pressure on Beijing, in all areas.
The difference in treatment between Russia and China is partly linked to the fact that there is an important disarmament program inherited from the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Since its advent, Biden has proposed to Moscow to extend the New Start nuclear weapons reduction treaty by five years, which was set to expire this year.
In this face to face there will be the basic objective, that is, at best, to agree on how to disagree
While there is no sympathy between Moscow and Washington, there is a historical legacy, that of nuclear deterrence, which Biden and Putin know well. This culture of east-west negotiation does not exist with China, a much more recent superpower.
The common agenda will not make the discussion between Biden and Putin more friendly, not least because the two countries have to bridge a great distance. But the nature of the relationship changes, with the habit of opposing each other without crossing the Rubicon. In any case, the list of topics that create tension is quite long: cyber attacks, Ukraine, Belarus, Navalnyj, sanctions …
In this face to face there will be form – everyone will want to come out with their heads held high – and the basic objective, that is, in the best of cases, to agree on how to disagree. There will be no miracles, because the conditions do not exist.
Joe Biden is still in the phase of restoring US credibility after the Trump years. Both Beijing and Moscow see the West in decline. Biden wants to convince everyone otherwise. The scenography of the summit was prepared with this objective: by participating first in the G7, at the NATO summit and in a meeting with the European Union, Biden wanted to show that his “line-up” is united and solid, at the risk of irritating his own allies who do not have too much desire to be dragged into a new block. French President Emmanuel Macron leaked some annoyance on June 15 in Brussels, at the end of the NATO summit.
In the great theater of diplomacy, the Geneva summit constitutes an important moment in the construction phase of the new balance of power. The next step will be China, the true strategic rival of the twenty-first century. A more complex and more essential question for the world balance.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)