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Not-So-Great Expectations: At Putin-Biden Summit, Modest Outcomes

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands as they meet for talks in Geneva on June 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands as they meet for talks in Geneva on June 16.

After all that, it came down to this: ambassadors and nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on June 16 for their first summit -- five months after Biden took office, and more than 21 years since Putin first did. With bilateral relations spiraling into potentially dangerous territory, both leaders, and their advisers, had telegraphed their goals ahead of time.

For Biden, it was pushing back against several years of what U.S. officials have called the Kremlin's "malign activities." For Putin, it was appearing on the world stage as an equal to the U.S. president, an echo of the Great Power politics of the Soviet era, when Washington and Moscow played on a Cold War chessboard across the globe.

"This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest. That's what it's about… Let's see what happens," Biden told reporters afterward.

Neither the White House nor the Kremlin had held out hopes for major breakthroughs. And the outcomes, at least publicly, met those low expectations, with two small "deliverables" -- and a bevy of other smoldering issues that may again burst into flame in the coming months.

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"Not much was agreed upon; not much was done," said James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "And that was probably appropriate, proportionate to the state of the relations between the two."

"You don't want the train to come off the rails" in the Russian-American relationship, Nixey told RFE/RL, "but you don't want any more than that because that would imply some sort of concession" to Moscow.

For Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, the summit met expectations: "Not a reset, but maybe better managed confrontation lies ahead," he said in a post to Twitter.

Here's a short list of what was achieved, and a longer list of what wasn't:

Diplomacy Deliverable

Ahead of the Geneva summit, many observers predicted that the easiest thing Putin and Biden could agree on was also the simplest: the return of ambassadors to the two countries' diplomatic missions in Moscow and Washington.

Both Russia and the United States have done tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats for several years now; the Obama administration expelled nearly three dozen Russian diplomats -- some believed to be intelligence officers -- in 2016 after finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Moscow retaliated.

The Trump administration kicked out another 60 in 2018, in response to Britain's finding that Russian intelligence agents used a military-grade nerve agent against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent who was living in England at the time. The U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia has since dwindled to a fraction of its normal size.

More recently, Russia's ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, returned to Moscow for consultations after Biden gave a TV interview in which he agreed with the suggestion that Putin was "a killer." Not long after, the U.S. ambassador, John Sullivan, left Moscow, ostensibly for discussions in Washington, though diplomatic sources told RFE/RL he was all but forced to leave by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Returning the two ambassadors to their posts at the very least allows for formal, high-level diplomatic interactions, experts said; the absence meant virtually none of that.

Stability Deliverable

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States built an entire scaffolding of arms control and confidence-building treaties meant to avert accidental war, nuclear or otherwise. After the Soviet collapse, that scaffolding weakened; the 2002 decision by President George W. Bush's administration to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is often cited by the Kremlin as a major blow to that framework.

Since then, a series of other treaties have collapsed; most notably, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF. And there were fears that New START, the last major agreement capping the world's two largest nuclear arsenals, would be scrapped, potentially leading to an all-out arms race.

Days after taking office and shortly before New START's early-February expiration date, Biden agreed with Russia on a five-year extension, his first major foreign policy decision as president.

In a joint statement issued by the White House and the Kremlin during the summit, Biden and Putin said the extension of New START "exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control."

They said they would hold new talks "to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures."

Biden and Putin "have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war," the statement said.

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To be sure, neither side is saying they intend to sign a new treaty. And there are lingering doubts about whether Russia secretly developed an INF-violating missile, hoping the Americans wouldn't find out about it. And both sides are modernizing their arsenals and developing new weapons and new delivery systems.

But the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based advocacy group, welcomed the agreement on further talks. "The clear statement by the two presidents that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought is an important foundation for reducing nuclear risks," it said.

Cyber Domain

The White House had made clear that the issue of cyberoffensives -- hacking, espionage, ransomware, viruses, critical infrastructure attacks -- was a priority for Biden's meeting with Putin.

The U.S. government last year announced a massive breach of U.S. computer systems and blamed it on Russia's foreign intelligence service. Ransomware attacks that have paralyzed U.S. commercial interests have been blamed on criminal gangs harbored in Russia. And then there's the 2016 election-related hacking that resulted in criminal indictments against Russian military intelligence officers.

Russian military intelligence agents have also been blamed for a major hack that briefly shut down portions of Ukraine's electricity grid in the winters of 2015 and 2016.

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After the summit, Biden told reporters that he raised the issue of Russian hacking with Putin.

"I pointed out to him that we have significant cybercapability. And he knows it. He doesn't know exactly what it is but it's significant. If, in fact, they violate basic norms -- we will respond. He knows: in a cyber way," Biden said.

"Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory," Biden said.

He also said he didn't make any threats on the subject, but posed a theoretical question to Putin about the dangers of cyberattacks.

"I looked at him and said, How would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter," Biden said.

Critical infrastructure should be "off-limits" to cyberattacks, Biden said he told Putin, and he proposed a list of organizations that should be off-limits in 16 economic sectors. He did not identify them.

For his part, Putin claimed, somewhat implausibly, that most of the cyberattacks in the world came from the United States, Canada, and Britain.

"We certainly see where the attacks are coming from. We see that this work is coordinated from U.S. cyberspace," Putin said. "Russia is not on the list of countries from where -- from the cyberspace of which -- most of the various cyberattacks are carried out."

It's unclear whether any more specific agreement on cyberattacks and hacking was reached behind closed doors.

Human Rights, Opposition Politics, Navalny

Going into the summit, Biden faced calls in Washington and elsewhere to confront Putin on the plight of Russia's political opposition and civil society. That includes, first and foremost, corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, who survived a nerve-agent poisoning last August that he blames on Putin. Navalny was promptly jailed upon returning to Russia after recuperating in Germany.

Two days prior to the summit, Biden said in a speech in England that were Navalny to die in a Russian prison "it would be a tragedy, it would do nothing but hurt relations with the rest of the world, and me."

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And after the summit, Biden said that he did raise Navalny's case with Putin, and pledged to persist: "I made it clear to President Putin that we'll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights because that's what we are. That's who we are" as Americans.

He also vowed to fight for the release of Americans imprisoned in Russia on what they say are spurious charges, including two former U.S. Marines, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.

For his part, Putin gave no ground on Navalny, suggesting that his treatment was a domestic matter and refusing, as in the past, to utter the opposition leader's name, calling him "the citizen you have just mentioned."

Russian officials have in the past also floated the idea of a prisoner swap, indicated they sought the release of convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout or drug-smuggling pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.

On the broader question of Russian opposition politics, Putin tried to draw a parallel with the crowd of Trump supporters who rioted outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, some of whom broke into the Capitol building.

Putin, who in the past has distorted U.S. domestic politics to serve his arguments, suggested the hundreds of people arrested were being subjected to "persecution for political opinions."

In his own comments to reporters, Biden dismissed Putin's argument.

"It's one thing for literally criminals to break through a cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer and be held unaccountable, [and another] for people objectively marching on the capitol and saying 'You are not allowing me to speak freely,'" he said. "That's a ridiculous comparison."

Biden appeared to be referring to the Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who was initially believed to have died from injuries suffered during the attack. A medical examiner later ruled that he died from natural causes, but said the stressful circumstances he faced in the melee the day before he died had contributed to his condition.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.