international analysis and commentary

Putin-Biden summit: establishing the framework for another cold war

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The Russia-US summit in Geneva was a true triumph for President Vladimir Putin. The mere fact that it took place after Russia has been repeatedly ostracized as an erratic pariah is more important than what was on the agenda, and the practical results.

In Russia, the summit served as proof that Putin is doing everything right. It showed that Russia is still an indispensable country – without which no major international issue can be resolved. In the eyes of the Russian political elite, the summit demonstrated that Russia is one of the few truly sovereign countries capable of attacking the West and crossing its red lines, while remaining so relevant and necessary that the leaders of the Western world must keep talking to Moscow.

Vladimir Putin sunbathes in southern Siberia (2017)

 

Internationally, the summit boosted Putin’s prestige as a capable and shrewd power broker who can walk away with more than any other leader of a non-Western state. It also made other states more eager to gravitate toward Russia. The summit demonstrated that even though its means are often dirty, the Kremlin has managed to make the international order more fluid and multipolar.

At the beginning of 2021, the summit did not look likely. Over the past decade, Russia has done much to unite Western countries against it. It has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed a separatist movement there. It has tried to influence elections and other democratic procedures in foreign countries. It has propped up outcast regimes in Syria and Belarus. Inside the country, the Kremlin has silenced its critics by jailing them, forcing them to flee the country, or by poisoning them with a nerve agent.

With every step, the Kremlin has felt increasingly at ease and willing to up the ante. It often looks like the Kremlin is continuously testing the limits of what it can and cannot do. Today, the Kremlin behaves as though it has successfully built an impregnable and self-sustainable fortress. Moscow believes it is an independent player capable of doing anything it needs to pursue its interests. The Geneva summit only confirmed to the Russian government that this policy works.

At the cornerstone of today’s political regime in Russia lies the idea that, along with China, it is the only country in the world that is a great power that does not succumb to American leadership. To achieve that status, Putin has built a centralized authoritarian government system that, unlike much more fluid democracies, is capable of effectively concentrating power and thus allowing Russia to punch above its weight.

The cost of it is the effectiveness of the Russian economy, the degradation of its society and culture. Putin’s regime is stable and capable of keeping any internal challenge under control, but it cannot make the country more modern or prosperous. It cannot make it attractive to the outside world as a country with some of the highest living standards, but it can make other countries stand in awe over how Russia can woo the world despite this and get away with it. The Geneva summit  of June 16 was a celebration of this approach.

The road to the summit was a good case in point. At the end of March, Russia flexed its muscles by concentrating a large group of troops on its border with Ukraine. While it is a legitimate move for a country to send troops to exercise wherever it pleases within its territory, the Kremlin’s move sent an unequivocal signal to the West. In Moscow, Kremlin-linked political analysts briefed political attaches at embassies that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent, and the plan is to occupy territories all the way to Kiev.

In the end, it appeared that the Kremlin was bluffing. In the middle of April, Biden offered a summit and refrained from imposing tough sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project. In response, some of the Russian troops were called off from the border. The truth is, however, that no one doubted that Putin could afford to invade Ukraine if he felt it was necessary for his aims and no one wanted a messy war in Europe. Putin’s logic that he can always up the risks and win, worked again.

The situation with the Nord Stream 2 project is another important case that shows the situation in a nutshell. The US stopped short of engaging in an open conflict with Germany over the pipeline that would allow Russia to divert its gas exports away from Ukraine, which would lose up to $3 billion in transit payments after 2024 when the current contract with Russia will expire. This is a huge sum for Ukraine, which corresponds to a significant portion of the country’s defense budget.

For a long time, the US opposed the project, defining it as a geopolitical weapon Russia could use to weaken Ukraine. However, Germany was very keen to see the pipeline completed as it aims to shift the nuclear-powered electricity production. The Russian pipeline project was just too lucrative for Berlin to refuse. With Biden unwilling to anger Germany, the key country for the Transatlantic alliance, the project was essentially greenlighted by the White House.

In a situation in which both sides have nuclear arsenals at their disposal, talking is nevertheless better than not talking. Putin and Biden also discussed several humanitarian issues, including the situation in Syria and the fate of many Americans and Russians kept in the two countries’ prisons.

The truth is, however, that under the current leadership and governance model in Russia and with the relentless US ambition to remain the global superpower able to wield influence in every region of the world, including Moscow’s underbelly, this bilateral relationship has no other course but a downward spiral. Putin and Biden might only establish a framework for it. That in itself makes the summit a relative success.