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The Week In Russia: The Geneva Contentions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden during their meeting in Geneva on June 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden during their meeting in Geneva on June 16.

Given the low expectations for their June 16 summit, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin may have headed home from Geneva with the sense of a modest mission accomplished. It was an easier reach for Putin than for Biden, who may face pressure for results in the months ahead.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Clearly Pleased'

With expectations pared to a minimum, both U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin can probably say they achieved their goals, modest as they were, at their June 16 summit in Geneva.

Biden and Putin “shook hands, exchanged unpleasantries, agreed to have their people get in touch with their other people, and moved on,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, wrote wryly in a newsletter the day after the meeting. "In other words, the summit was a resounding success."

And Olya Oliker, Europe and Central Asia director at the International Crisis Group, tweeted shortly after the summit ended that “both came out of this looking good to their core audiences.”

Compared to Biden, who faced criticism from some quarters for holding the meeting at all, the bar was arguably much lower for Putin: All he really had to do was get invited and show up.

Putin “apparently got what he wanted from this summit,” Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political analyst who is not aligned with the Kremlin, told Current Time shortly after a solo post-summit press conference in which he said Putin “seemed self-assured” -- or, as one journalist covering the meeting put it, in which “Putin…was clearly pleased by whatever Putin had to say.”

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Asked what it was Putin had wanted, Oreshkin replied: “Putin wanted a summit.”

“He wanted to break the blockade of his…peripherality and his toxicity,” Oreshkin said, as well as what he described with a Russian word that might be best translated as “unhandshakeability” -- if such a thing existed in English.

So in the end, all the parsing of the presidential handshake and the short, chaotic portion of the summit that was conducted before cameras was probably superfluous -- for Putin, any handshake at all meant mission accomplished.

For the same reason that summit success was within easy reach for Putin, it seemed like a substantially bigger challenge for Biden.

Aside from maybe a few negligible voices on the margins of discourse in Russia, Putin will face zero criticism or negative political consequences for meeting with Biden.

In fact, Greene calculated that with the exception of a few outliers, U.S.-Russia summits involving Putin have handed him average ratings increases of 1 percent immediately, nearly 2 percent three months later, and nearly 3 percent six months later.

It's The Elections

That’s important to Putin right now: One of his main levers of power, the dominant but unpopular United Russia party, faces a test in elections to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that Putin scheduled for September 19, as expected, in a decree issued the day after the meeting with Biden.

And far from applying any pressure on Putin, state-run and Kremlin-friendly private media outlets have, as usual, helped amplify a narrative favorably comparing Putin to Biden -- right down to the color of their neckties.

At least, they were doing so until one day after the summit, when Putin abruptly criticized the fawning chorus for making Biden out to be a doddering fool and said that on the contrary, he is sharp and on the ball.

Putin's praise for Biden sounded like a reward for meeting with him -- and may also have been based on the calculation that it is more impressive to match wits with someone who has them than with someone who does not.

In contrast to Putin, meanwhile, Biden has been taken to task at home by some on both sides of the political divide who contend that Putin should be shunned until he changes his ways, not prodded into doing so. That, they caution, has been tried by several presidents over Putin’s 21-plus years in power, with little or no result.

Calling for punishment of Putin’s Russia, they argue that almost any engagement is, on the contrary, an incentive for more misconduct.

At his own solo press conference after the talks, Biden pointedly rejected those arguments, saying the reasons for meeting Putin were "pretty straightforward."

“One, there is no substitute…for a face-to-face dialogue between leaders. None,” he said. “And President Putin and I had a -- share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries -- a relationship that has to be stable and predictable.”

He also hit back against Putin’s “whataboutism,” rejecting the Russian president’s effort to equate Americans who stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election result with Russian protesters seeking basic rights and freedoms as “ridiculous.”

And he vowed “to stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view,” saying “that’s why we’re going to raise our concerns about cases like Aleksei Navalny,” the imprisoned Kremlin critic who survived a poisoning last year that he blames on Putin.

'A Formidable Task'

Biden also said the United States would respond to cyberattacks and would “not tolerate” election interference, adding: “The bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”

Putin made no commitment to abide by any such rules, and in his own defiant comments rejected all criticism. He can claim that he made no compromises at the summit.

Biden can, too. But he is likely to face more pressure than Putin for progress beyond the modest “deliverables” that were duly delivered: agreements to bring back the ambassadors who returned to their capitals earlier this year amid rising tension, and for a “strategic stability dialogue” that would “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures" between the nuclear-armed former Cold War foes.

As time passes, Biden’s backers and detractors will be watching Russia to see whether Putin changes his conduct -- something the president, in a testy exchange at the close of his press conference in Geneva, suggested was far from guaranteed.

“I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior…. What will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world,” he said. “I’m not confident of anything; I’m just stating a fact.”

Reining in what U.S. officials have called Moscow’s malign activities is “a formidable task,” Andrew Weiss, vice president at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, told The Wall Street Journal.

“People in the Biden administration are savvy enough to know that…Putin has no intention of crawling into a box so the U.S. can give its undivided attention to China,” he said.

Thomas Graham, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was a top adviser on Russia during the George W. Bush administration, told the newspaper that after the summit "we’re off to a good start and Putin sees himself as a major player on the world stage."

“But how long that lasts is an open question,” he said. “If he doesn’t feel he’s getting enough respect he’ll do something to get our attention again."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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