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Geneva 2021: Ghosts of the Past Peering into the Future

Meeting in a Swiss villa, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin discuss the future of US-Russia relations.

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in a Swiss villa

In 2018, the world was aghast as they witnessed the mess of the Helsinki summit between the United States and Russia. Despite the proceedings being conducted diplomatically, commentators claimed that the summit created an all-time low between Russia and the United States. Donald Trump, former president of the United States, conceded the claim of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. His performance failed expectations as he became defensive of Russia. Journalists listened, shell-shocked, as Trump respected the denial of America’s sworn enemies more than US intelligence service’s assessments of an election.

The joint press conference showed Trump’s incompetence as he, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, lost a debate to Russia. Trump’s advisor to Russia at the time, Fiona Hill, admitted she had considered pulling a fire alarm to end the United States’ humiliation at the 2018 summit, in an interview with CNN. Trump’s poor conduct set a new precedent for interaction between the United States and Russia. The world was abuzz with curiosity at what Russian relations with the US would behold at the end of the Trump-era.

Former US President Donald Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Former US President Donald Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin

On June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland, President Joe Biden of the US and President Vladimir Putin of Russia prepared to conduct high-stakes diplomacy in an exceedingly anticipated conference. The two leaders met at Villa LaGrange, an area of political neutrality, shaking hands and hoping for a productive discussion. The summit commenced with a meeting between Biden and Putin, accompanied by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Wider delegations with other officials met subsequently. The event concluded with two separate press conferences for each of the leaders. Though the 2021 summit was expected to last for five hours, it only occupied four. No longer does there remain the erratic air of Trump. Biden carried surface-level normalcy and democratic values, ushering in rosy thoughts of negotiation.

The History of US-Russia Relations

Going into the summit, both parties had their list of grievances and redressals to address. Putin had refused to alter behaviour after America’s complaints of treatment of political dissidence in Russia and their global activities. Putin, in turn, had his own worries about US military activity in the Middle East. With the buildup of tension, the summit had the potential to be the most disputable since the Cold War in the 1980s, with both clambering to center themselves on the worldwide political stage. The Geneva summit would unearth topics of US-Russia relations invoked over numerous decades.

Joseph Stalin with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill
Joseph Stalin with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

The history of US-Russia summits was set in motion during the second world war. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin first met with American President Franklin Roosevelt, and then Harry Truman, his successor, in the presence of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill both times. By 1945, Germany was nearing defeat in the war, and another summit took place. Following the end of the war, the Soviets agreed to join the United Nations and respect free elections in territories they occupied. American conservatives viewed the initial meetings with Stalin as a sign of weakness for the US and a victory for communism. American presidents engaging in diplomacy with Russia were blamed for negotiations by Republicans in the US, who were staunchly against any support of Russia or communism.

President Eisenhower
President Eisenhower

After the Eisenhower administration, many summits took place over the course of multiple years. Perhaps the turning point of US-Russia relations was in the 1980s with American President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was harshly against communism and Russia, referring to Russia as an “evil empire” of sorts. Propaganda was spread around. The 1980s is widely regarded as a time of the Red Scare, where people in capitalist countries were taught to fear communist powers globally. Early in his second term, however, Reagan discovered Russian General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who was eager to assist in the demolition of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev weighed political decisions based on survival, with areas of grey in morality. His vantage point was one of globalization, where Russia was interdependent with the US, and desired Western cooperation. Soviet communism viewed the West’s capitalism as an imminent threat to their independence, but Gorbachev did not care about maintaining communism as much as he cared about appeasing the US to maintain the global order. Ultimately, Russia was a major country. November 1985 saw another Geneva summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. The environment was changed and the two men discussed bilateral nuclear disarmament.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

With the termination of the Soviet Union came the Russian federation: gone are the days of communism. Fast forward to 2009, where the US president Barack Obama took office. Obama and Putin refused to have a summit together, albeit both nations had agreed to limit nuclear arsenals or new weapons systems. They first spoke at the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013, discussing the war in Syria. Soon, Obama, with the rest of the G-8 member-states, expelled Russia from the G-8 due to the illegal annexation of Crimea. Obama seemed to be aware of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and ordered Putin to stop. In Obama’s eyes, Russians were the antagonists of the world.

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin

Finally came the ever infamous era of the Donald Trump administration in 2016. Trump did not view Russia as an enemy, but rather as a business partner. However, Trump’s lack of skill in addressing key issues between the US and Russia has led to a rabbit hole of problems left to current US President Joe Biden to address. Russian cybersecurity is a concern while Moscow reels under US sanctions.

After a winding history, the US and Russia arrived at the Geneva Summit in 2021. In the past, NATO nations, such as the United States, put their target on Russia. After the pandemic, the focus has been tilted to China. Biden’s campaign oriented foreign policy to deal with the ‘China challenge’, but Russia remains a burden. While China deepens ties with Russia, Russian troops have already assembled once on the Ukraine border to attack Biden. The Russian Ambassador to the US was recalled after Biden called Putin a “killer”, leading to a collapse in bilateral relations between the two countries. Following the lack of cooperation prior to the summit, Geneva wished to return the two to a sense of predictability. Both countries could then engage with their differences and agree on common grounds. By connecting with Russia, the US will also be able to redirect attention to China.

G8 Summit

During Vladimir Putin’s reign in Russia, four US presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden – have all repeatedly made promises to reduce hostile Russian relations with the US. Each presidential term, the promises have gone unfulfilled. However, the Geneva Summit is not like the others because Biden never sought to solidify friendship with Russia, but, more accurately, stabilize the relationship in order to halt matters from worsening.

What happened this year?

Biden and Putin opened the Geneva summit with carefully thought-out pleasantries. The environment was pragmatic. At his solo press conference following the summit, President Biden pointed out, “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.” He was aware and even expecting Russia to not follow all promises they committed to. Putin, after all, did not have a trustworthy record. He has been bullying, invading, and interfering in the elections of his neighbours. He has demolished Russian institutions and imprisoned political opponents. Biden has changed his approach. In the past, the US would criticize Russian initiatives and emphasize Moscow’s approach to international problems affecting everyone. Past contentions were dropped and areas of genuine dialogue, such as cybersecurity, strategic stability, and the sovereignty of neighbouring Russian countries such as Ukraine were conversed about instead. Biden referred to the encounter as “positive” while Putin called it “constructive”. No threats were passed.

Biden’s most notable matter to discuss was Russian cybersecurity and impending threats of cyberattacks. He posed the question to Putin, “How would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?” The Colonial Pipeline Co. was a path for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to flow to the Eastern US from the Middle East’s Gulf Coast. On May 7, 2021, an alleged cyberattack from Russia caused a fuel shortage and the declaration of a state of emergency for the United States. Consequently, fuel prices rose to unprecedented amounts. A group of Russia-based cyber criminals called ‘DarkSide’ assumed responsibility for the shutdown. Colonial Pipeline regained the agency of transport after paying a $5 million ransom to the hackers, reported by the National Law Review. Biden issued a statement later assuring the public that the Russian government was not involved in the cyberattack, though he was disturbed at Putin’s ignorance of the situation.

Remaining firm, Biden told Putin that the United States had significant cyber capabilities. If Putin could not keep cyberattacks under close watch, the US would take action and issue consequences on Russia. Major American infrastructure cannot pay ransom to stay afloat. The Colonial Pipeline Co’s ransom was only affordable due to the low cost. Persistent ransom isn’t feasible and would lead to the destruction of infrastructure due to financial burden. Putin denied all accusations of Russian intrusion in the cyberattacks, his reasoning being that the US, Canada, and Britain all engage in cyber espionage.

While his claims ring true, and the other countries need to be held accountable as well, the explanation is hollow. No reasons exist for Russia to ignore concerns of cybersecurity, as it would benefit everyone. Putin ultimately agreed to start consultation on cybersecurity but appeared flippant. He did not seem to assess cyberattacks as a real dispute, but more of a presumption. Still, Biden responded to reporters before he boarded the flight back home that the conclusion on cybersecurity was realistic and Russia knows about the US’s willingness to respond to violated norms.

Possible human rights abuses were also pointed out by Biden. The leader of the opposition in Russia, Alexei Navalny is internationally renowned for organizing anti-establishment protests and ending corruption in Russia. The Kremlin critic is serving a two-and-a-half year jail sentence for his anti-government activities. Russian court rulings declaring Navalny an extremist were released on June 9 by his legal defence team. The court reprimanded Navalny’s demonstrations for causing damage to public order, harm to businesses, and overthrowing the Russian constitutional order. The United States government disagreed with the legal ruling, straining Russia’s relations with the US further. They demanded Navalny be freed. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet decried Navalny’s imprisonment on June 21, strengthening the US’s case. Worldwide, a decree has been passed for Moscow to honour civil freedom and release Navalny.

Arrest of Alexei Navalny
Arrest of Alexei Navalny

During the summit, Putin merely deflected any facts brought up by Biden about Navalny. He compared Alexei’s activism to the US capitol riots after the November election and the Black Lives Matter protests. He created excuses, complaining about how he was attempting to prevent popular movements. He reflected on the Black Lives Matter protests and stated Washington was in no place to look down on him. Political “disruption” was not allowed and he could not stand violations of law on the grounds of his own nation. Though he expressed sympathy for US property destruction, he couldn’t let a resistance develop in Russia as the government would be at risk. Additionally, arresting the January 6 US Capitol rioters after Biden’s presidential certification was illegitimate, as implied by Putin.

“Contradictory” is the only way to describe Putin’s responses. In admitting he feared a people’s resistance would overrun the government, he admits his totalitarian leadership. Putin realizes people are upset with him but he cannot allow them to express discontent. Freedom would threaten his political position. He retaliates the only way he knows how– by locking the protesters up. He compared Navalny’s crowd to Black Lives Matter riots, then to the right-wing, ultra-conservative, US Capitol rioters. The comparisons aren’t coherent; the two scenarios encompass completely separate groups of people. Other than that, he plainly said that most anti-government groups in Russia, besides Navalny, are plotting to promote American objectives, which is a conspiracy left unconfirmed.

However, American exceptionalism and human rights abuses within the United States directed towards minorities has rendered the US a hypocrite. Putin is able to detour all US arguments due to the less-than-stellar record of democracy within and outside of US borders. Any human rights abuse Americans criticize other countries about, are the same ones they’ve committed, such as locking up political prisoners, repressing protests, or generating imperialist wars in the Middle East. Though Biden touts democratic philosophies, the truth remains that the US keeps up a charade of innocence regarding human rights while passing the blame on to foreign countries. Although the US is indeed hypocritical in accusing Russia of human rights abuse as they themselves have buried plenty of socio-political dissent over the past few decades, Putin’s analogies are still ridiculous. Even if the US wasn’t the one bringing up human rights abuse, it is still a concern confirmed by the United Nations. Biden didn’t accept any of Putin’s opinions on the matter. Topics of human rights abuse were wrapped up by mutual disagreement.

Few countries were as panicked going into the summit as Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukraine has been occupied by Russian military forces, dividing the globe into a second Cold War. Though unofficial, seven years of war have been endured between Russia and Ukraine. Western countries impose sanctions on Russia to keep them at bay, but as time stretches on, Ukrainian officials are anxious at the potential of the West of compromising with the Kremlin in a way that Ukraine will not receive true sovereignty. Senior Kremlin leaders warned of a dead end for Ukraine if Russian military tactics did not de-escalate. Biden thus planned out a summit with Putin in Geneva.

Like human rights or cybersecurity, no official progress was made on reducing Russian aggression against Ukraine. However, Biden got an opportunity to reinforce his support for Ukraine and set firm expectations for Russia to pave the way for Ukrainian sovereignty. He expressed interest for further arms control even though Russia has violated provisions such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the past, via court-issued radioactive poisonings of state dissenters. He emphasized that he would not let Ukraine be a bargaining chip for Russian occupation. Putin once again usurped Biden’s claims. In front of Putin, the media viewed Biden as morally superior. Regardless, military control discussions need a fresh framework if Ukraine is to be saved.

Friendship or allyship wasn’t the end goal of the 2021 Geneva summit. Both Putin and Biden explained in the post-summit press conference that the future is uncertain for both parties. Neither of them are clear over whether US-Russia relations will actually improve. Biden compromised by having a meeting with Putin, while Putin appreciated Biden as an experienced political leader. Time will determine the state of US-Russia foreign policy, but for now, the summit was substantive and specific, sufficing for the time being. The Helsinki summit was set at a low bar, and 2021’s summit surpassed those expectations as tensions have begun to subside.

Written by Eshal Zahur

Edited by Adi Roy and Veda Rodewald



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