Biden meets Putin: America, Russia, and the return of diplomacy

The Geneva summit recalled the power of old-fashioned diplomacy and working patiently away at difficult problems

Presidents Biden and Putin are seated in a library during their summit in Geneva
Image by Peter Klaunzer

Joe Biden is the fifth American president to hold a bilateral summit with Vladimir Putin. But he is likely the first post-cold war US president to have a realistic understanding of what Russia is and what it wants – and what the United States can or cannot do about it, or with it. This is evident from the way he has positioned himself on Russia since elected – signalling to Moscow that he fundamentally disagrees on many issues but still sees a need to talk and work with it on other issues where necessary. 

And on Wednesday this positioning culminated in what can only be called a good summit.

What made this so was less the concrete deliverables, but the basis from which they arose: the participants holding clear perceptions of themselves, of each other, and of the state of the world; a proper assessment of the leverage they may or not may have; and a correct understanding of the things one can change and those they cannot. Encounters that are based on an adequate comprehension of oneself and others are always ultimately healthy and good, even if they are hard to have or produce little in terms of immediate results. 

But on this occasion the results were above expectations, even if those expectations were modest. The US and Russia agreed to start talks on strategic stability – which is good news for everyone, after the devastation that the Trump administration wreaked on international arms control agreements. The two sides also agreed to start talks on cyber security, potentially extending arms control into the realm of cyber, which would be a historical first. Still, the most important outcome might yet be that they found the start of a modus vivendi for managing their mutual relationship. The US-Russia relationship in the years to come is bound to be replete with disagreements and divergences. They will doubtless find themselves at loggerheads on various issues rather than engaged in partnership. But the Geneva may have laid the foundation for managing that relationship in ways that are shorn of excessive expectations and ambitions, hopefully also of paranoia and misreadings.  

Hopes and fears

Many in the West may have wanted more from the summit – for Biden to confront Putin and make him change his behaviour in Ukraine, Belarus, and towards Alexey Navalny. Such wishes are noble but unrealistic – and such an approach would likely have been counter-productive.

Biden has become president at a time when the world order is in flux and doubts are mounting over the future extent of US power. This means that Russia no longer feels the need to fit into the US-led world as it did for much of the past 30 years. The sort of leverage that former presidents could always draw on is now gone. 

Maybe paradoxically, the relative decline of US power has not caused Russia to relax. On the contrary, lately it has viewed the US with increased paranoia and defiance. Moscow does not believe in an imminent renaissance of Western power. But it has spent the months since November suspecting that the West – reunited under Biden – might use its disagreements with Moscow to try to imitate such a renaissance; that by teaming up against Russia it will seek to create an illusion of its former hegemony, and thus to compensate for, and obscure, its actual lack of hegemony.

A combination of vulnerability, fear, and defiance is what lies behind many recent actions by Moscow

These concerns have been magnified by Moscow’s acute awareness that the Kremlin’s domestic political legitimacy is waning, which fuels fears that the West will exploit that weakness and try to return to the relationship model of a bygone era: lecturing Russia about democracy and trying to expand the reach of Western institutions.

Such a combination of vulnerability, fear, and defiance is what lies behind many recent actions by Moscow – from its treatment of Navalny, whom Moscow now erroneously seems to view as a political agent of the West, to military escalation on the border with Ukraine – where Moscow, again erroneously, seems to have worried that Kyiv, emboldened by the US and Europe, might walk away from the Minsk agreements or even draw inspiration from Azerbaijan’s military success in Nagorno-Karabakh and try to retake Donbas by force.

Diplomacy returns?

Such pre-emptive defence is likely to remain Moscow’s modus operandi for the coming years. This is a dangerous fact: if incidents continue to pile up the way they did this past spring, and if one another’s intentions are not well understood, then defence can easily become offence; clashes can occur with no one having intended them.

The best remedy, and the best way to handle the situation and Russia’s nervousness, is some good old-fashioned diplomacy. 

Importantly, diplomacy here does not mean that the conflicts inherent within the Russia-West relationship can somehow be resolved by means of a diplomatic breakthrough; they cannot, at least not right now. Moscow’s domestic vulnerability will last until the Kremlin has managed to renew its political system by arranging a transfer of power from Putin (or, failing that, until the system has been replaced with something new). Moscow’s attitude towards the West will become more amenable once the West shows that it has managed to adapt and stay a force to be reckoned with in a world where its relative size and weight are not what they used to be.

The way to get there is for the West to do its homework and manage its global relationships, rather than confronting Russia head on. Disagreements about Europe’s eastern neighbourhood will be resolved when Russia understands that what it desires from, say, Ukraine, is not possible in principle – and that this is because Ukrainians do not want what Russia wants, not because the evil West is controlling them.

But, meanwhile, the relationship is best attended to through diplomatic means. Unlike modern diplomacy, which relies ever more on personal contacts among leaders, photo-ops  and sloganeering on Twitter, the art of diplomacy is more quiet and more serious. It focuses on reading the calculus of the other side and devising multi-step strategies of one’s own, on signalling and reading the other side’s signals in turn; on communicating one’s red lines and understanding those of the other side, on giving reassurances when needed, or showing doubt about one’s own intentions when the occasion calls for it – and, on some happy occasion, concluding agreements or charting common ways forward.

Why less is more

When it comes to pressure on Moscow, less might be more. These days, Russian politics resembles a knot that tightens when pulled but loosens with a lighter touch. Excessive pressure about its domestic arrangements will only cause Moscow to crack down even harder; excessive pressure about its neighbourhood will push the Kremlin to cling on even harder. A more relaxed approach, though, may help things change. It will not make Russia more democratic at home, or more like-minded in international affairs – that is not what one should expect. But it will allow space for domestic discussions in Russia about the necessity and nature of domestic transformation, and the means and ends in its relations with neighbours. Both of these processes have in fact already been under way already for a while. But the Russia-West relationship has the potential either to catalyse further debate – or to lock it into suspended animation. 

In these circumstances, it would be unwise of Biden to enter into a frontal confrontation with Russia. Such a move would be a misallocation of political capital and diplomatic energy, leading him to focus on things where little can be achieved by force but where more can be sought through the gift of time and space – and all at a time when the rising global challenger is China, and the real vulnerabilities that need to be addressed are domestic.

After the Geneva summit, Biden’s reputation in Russia went up overnight – and not because he ‘confronted’ Putin or was ‘tough’ on Russia

Biden seems to understand this. This, in turn, has already been noticed in Moscow. It was evident from the morning-after commentaries in Russia that Biden’s reputation there went up overnight – and not because he ‘confronted’ Putin or was ‘tough’ on Russia, but because he showed that he chooses his fights wisely and keeps a sober mind as well as honesty while conducting them.

“Biden showed himself in a new quality,” read one article. “Yes, he is old, and might have health issues … But as a politician, he held on to his principles, approach and to what is called integrity. … In general, we should not underestimate him.” This was said not in the context of Biden being an adversary – though there was an element of this too – but more in the sense of Biden being a statesman with both ethics and professionalism. Given how cynical the Russians’ view of politics, politicians, their motives, and the West has become, given how rarely they endow anyone with true respect, such honest appreciation is quite something.  And this is no bad thing – for Biden, the US, or the US-Russia relationship.

Full circle 

In a way, Russia and the US have now gone full circle. From the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union during Brezhnev, the relationship moved to hopes of cooperation during Gorbachev; hopes of democratisation – of Russia and globally – during Yeltsin; hopes of shared interests during early Putin, Medvedev, Bush, and Obama; chaos and paranoia during Trump; and with reacknowledged antagonism comes Biden.

The realities today are in some ways reminiscent of the 1970s. Again, we have a Russia that is domestically weak but defiant in its international relations; again, we have a US that is not the sort of hegemonic power it once was; and, again, the two sides disagree but are unable to change each other. This means the relationship cannot be improved by through big-bang successes, but needs patient management. The time has come for low expectations and slow diplomacy. Dramatic breakthroughs and tales of the power of personal chemistry can put on the shelf for the time being, along with name-calling on Twitter and bold but empty moralising.

This outcome might seem bleak, if compared to hopes one may have had. But it is decent enough if compared to the alternatives that would be realistically available.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow