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Biden's Bargain: Possibilities, Pitfalls Await After Summit With Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden before their summit meeting in Geneva on June 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden before their summit meeting in Geneva on June 16.

When U.S. President Joe Biden invited Vladimir Putin to a summit against the wishes of those who cautioned he would be rewarding Moscow for "malign activities," it seemed to some like a long-shot bet to rein in the Russian leader by giving him the respect Kremlin-watchers say he craves.

After the talks in Geneva, Biden indicated he had no illusions about any breakthrough with Putin, whom the United States has accused with increasing frequency of violating international norms, including sanctioning assassination attempts, cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure, and election interference.

"We'll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters," Biden told reporters following his three-hour meeting with Putin on June 16. "Let's see what happens. As that old expression goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating."

The leaders of the two largest nuclear powers agreed to set up expert groups on the contentious issues of arms control and cybersecurity and rebuild diplomatic channels, including returning the two ambassadors to their posts and potentially reopening consulates.

Russia has said its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, who was recalled to Moscow in March as tensions heightened, will resume his duties in Washington next week. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan, who left Moscow for the United States in April, is expected to return to the Russian capital in the coming weeks.

Ballots And Belarus

Analysts say the United States and Russia could potentially make some progress on a few other issues in the coming months, such as agreeing on humanitarian aid to Syria and conducting a prisoner swap. They see a tough and tortuous road for arms control, a key pillar of Biden's foreign policy goals, due to the complexity of the issue.

However, any improvement in relations from progress on those issues could be swept away by unpredictable developments in Belarus, where the Kremlin backs the crackdown by strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, or in Ukraine, where Russia backs separatists who hold parts of two eastern provinces amid a now-simmering war that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Russian parliamentary elections on September 17-19 are another potential tripwire, analysts warned. The Kremlin has stepped up its campaign of pressure against the opposition since the beginning of the year, jailing its most prominent leader, Aleksei Navalny, and outlawing his anti-corruption organization on what are seen in the West as absurd charges that it promotes extremism.

"The election is a real land mine" for the relationship, said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"It will be a test of how the administration is going to address Russia and issues of democracy and human rights because we're likely to see -- as we've already seen -- a great crackdown on Russian opposition political parties and media in the next couple months before this so-called election."

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At his post-summit press conference, Biden said he told Putin that "we're going raise our concerns about cases like Aleksey Navalny" and "continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights because that's what we are, that's who we are. "

Putin, at his press conference, claimed without evidence that opposition groups are supported by the United States in an attempt to weaken the country.

'Internal Suppression'

Heather Conley, the director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Biden administration faces a challenge in balancing his support of democracy globally with the pursuit of strategic stability as the Kremlin takes a sharp turn away from such principles.

"It is going to be a very interesting dilemma for the administration because the Kremlin has as of last year made a decisive decision about internal suppression. There's no going back. It's only going one way, which is more [repression]," she said.

She says the Obama administration found itself in a similar predicament and sought to "compartmentalize" human rights issues to achieve strategic objectives on issues such as arms control, Iran and Afghanistan -- many of the same issues Biden is trying to resolve today.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia expected arms-control talks with the United States that were agreed at a summit in Geneva to start within weeks.

Prospects for swift progress on that issue are few and those talks are likely to be lengthy, as Russia and the United States have yet to decide on which classes of weapons will be controlled by treaties.

Both countries are developing new weapon systems, such as hypersonic missiles, that were not covered under previous treaties, only one of which remains in force -- New START, which covers long-range nuclear weapons and, after Biden and Putin extended it in February, is due to expire in 2026.

"All of these are extremely difficult and thorny [issues] so it does need prioritization and a lot of political will," Conley said. "The biggest thing that's absent is trust, particularly for the U.S. side."

Trust And Self-Interest

Biden seemed to suggest that at his press conference following the summit talks, saying that "this is not about trust, it's about self-interest and verification of self-interest."

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The United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 after accusing Russia of developing and deploying a missile in violation of the 1987 pact.

As for hacking and cyberattacks, Conley says past U.S. attempts to cooperate with Russia on a cybersecurity framework "have not been successful" in part because the Kremlin denies it engages in any of those activities.

The United States has accused Russian intelligence of hacking into U.S. election infrastructure and, more recently, accused criminal actors based in Russia of a ransomware attack against energy infrastructure. Putin rejected the accusations.

"It is difficult to work on those kinds of issues when one side does not acknowledge that they're involved in that," Conley said. She said a goal of the Geneva meeting was to get Putin to follow international norms and rules such as those for cyberspace by showing him the respect a summit with a U.S. president confers.

"Will Mr. Putin respect those rules? That's the question," she said.

Yuval Weber, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, says Putin needs to tread carefully with the cyberattacks.

He says they get the attention of the United States and Biden but also damage Putin's international reputation and threaten to make Russia a pariah state. "Putin is going to have to find something that will demonstrate that he's sincere about working with the United States," he said.

But if Moscow does begin to ease off on cyberattacks and other methods of harrying the United States, it may want to exact a high price in return, Weber said. One cost it could seek might be an assurance that Ukraine won't be put on track for NATO membership anytime soon.

A day after the summit, Putin's spokesman made clear that NATO membership for Ukraine is one of Russia's "red lines."

First Steps?

One of the first signs of progress from the Geneva talks could come in a July 10 vote at the UN Security Council on humanitarian aid for millions of people in Syria, analysts said.

The United States supports extending the authorization for assistance to be allowed to cross through Bab al-Hawa, the sole border crossing for humanitarian aid from Turkey to northwestern Syria.

Russia, which has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crucial support throughout the decade-long war that started with the suppression of protests, has used its veto power in the past to restrict aid.

A prisoner swap is also a real possibility in the coming months, analysts said.

The United States accuses Russia of holding American citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed on trumped-up charges.

Biden raised the men's fate during the summit with Putin, who has not ruled out an exchange for Russians imprisoned in the United States.

"I said the families of the detained Americans came up and we discussed it," "We're going to follow through with that discussion," Biden said at his press conference, without giving details. "I am not going to walk away on that issue."

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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