Analysis | Why did Biden meet Putin?

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland.   | Photo Credit: AP

In 2011, Joe Biden, then Vice President in the Obama administration, visited Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Inside Mr. Putin’s office, Mr. Biden “held his hand a few inches from his nose,” he recalled later in a conversation with journalist Evan Osnos. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I am looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul’.”

When Mr. Osnos, who has described this conversation in the book Joe Biden American Dreamer, asked if he said that to Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden replied, ‘Absolutely, positively”. In March 2021, after assuming the White House, Mr. Biden described Mr. Putin as a “killer”. He also said the Russian leader was “going to pay” for the “interference” in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Three months later, the same Mr. Biden met Mr. Putin in the Swiss city of Geneva and sought a more predictable relationship between the “two great powers”.

Western alliance

In the past, when American Presidents visited Europe and met NATO allies, Russia had been their main focus. But this time, when Mr. Biden went to Europe, his first foreign trip after becoming the President, the focus was on China - a sign of the emerging shifts in the global power balance. Mr. Biden held a host of talks with separate blocs in Europe — the Group of Seven (G7), NATO and the EU — with a focus on strengthening the western alliance.

The G7 industrialised nations — the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan — issued a communique slamming China’s human rights records. Issues such as the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, growing tensions with Taiwan and the alleged lack of transparency on Covid-19 were all mentioned in the G7 statement.

The 30-member NATO, whose traditional focus has been on Russia, has also issued a statement in which China has been mentioned multiple times. NATO members warned against the “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order” emanating from China’s rise. The U.S. and the 27-member EU have decided to cooperate more on technology, regulation, industrial development and trade in an attempt to help the West compete better with China. They have also decided to set up a high-level trade and technology council, which would boost innovation and investment.

The China focus

This approach is in line with the Biden administration’s overall focus on reorienting American foreign policy to deal with the China challenge more effectively. In the past six months since he assumed office, Mr. Biden has taken a host of decisions in this regard. He ended America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is pulling back all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11.

Also read: Putin says Biden meet 'constructive'; talks agreed on cybersecurity, arms

In March, he called the first summit of Quad countries — the U.S., India, Japan and Australia — which decided to boost vaccine production to help other countries. At home, the U.S. Congress passed the $250 billion tech and manufacturing Bill, which would ensure funds for the semiconductor research, design, and manufacturing initiatives. The aim is undoubtedly to counter China. And then, Mr. Biden travelled to Europe to rally reluctant allies around the U.S. in the emerging geopolitical contest with China.

When Mr. Biden moves forward, focusing on China, Russia remains a distraction. Ties between the two countries, as both leaders have admitted, are at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War. There were allegations of Russian cyberattacks and election interference in the U.S., while Moscow is reeling under Western sanctions and seems determined to resist any move by NATO to expand into its backyard.

Ukraine remains an unresolved crisis. Earlier this year, Mr. Putin had assembled Russian troops on the Ukraine border in a direct challenge to Mr. Biden. After he recalled Russian Ambassador from Washington and asked the American Ambassador to return for consultations, bilateral relations between the two countries practically collapsed. On the other side, Russia was steadily deepening its partnership with China. Mr. Biden appears to have wanted to arrest this free fall of ties and bring in some order.

Detente with Russia

In the Geneva summit, Mr. Biden stopped short of characterising Mr. Putin, which he had done in the past, and held talks on critical issues. One summit doesn’t resolve the serious foreign policy differences between the two former Cold War rivals, but both leaders have sought a détente. Mr. Putin said it’s “primarily a pragmatic relationship”, while Mr. Biden said it’s not about trust but about “self interest”. And they decided to return their Ambassadors and follow up bilateral engagements with “a strategic stability dialogue” on arms reduction.

The message from Geneva is that the leaders wanted to establish rules of engagement so that the countries can better address their differences and seek common ground on issues of mutual interest. With some predictability in ties with Russia, Mr. Biden can strengthen his China-focussed foreign policy. And with a less hostile America, Mr. Putin can retain Russian influence in the country’s backyard.

In the past, President Donald Trump had sought to isolate China and reach out to Russia. But, amid allegations that a Russian cyber campaign helped him win the 2016 elections, Mr. Trump’s attempts to build a bond with Mr. Putin met with strong resistance in Washington. But Mr. Biden, an establishment Democrat himself, seems to be having more leeway in the Russia policy.

It’s too early to see any meaningful change in Russia-U.S. relations. But the Geneva summit suggests that policymakers in Washington have at least started thinking of Russia as a secondary challenge that needs to be tackled diplomatically, not only through coercion, if the U.S. wants to take on a rising China.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 11:46:53 AM |

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