The Putin-Biden summit in Geneva

The Putin-Biden summit in Geneva

Priorities and prospects for Belarus and Ukraine

Official White House Photo by David Lienemann
12.06.2021 David R. Marples

Introduction

In 1985, a new Soviet leader met his US counterpart in Geneva in November 1985. It brought together Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Many Americans were wary of the summit, believing that a dynamic and younger Russian would gain too much from the old Cold War warrior Reagan. In fact, though there was some impressive rhetoric about bringing peace to the world, the summit achieved little other than to allow the two leaders to get to know each other for future meetings. In 2021, once again, an ageing American president will meet his somewhat younger Russian leader, and the prospects seem limited though in the contemporary summit, Joe Biden is very familiar with Vladimir Putin. There are no illusions. In the past, as Vice-President to Barack Obama, Biden informed Putin that he didn’t think he had a soul, to which the rejoinder was that the American knew him well.

Some critics wonder why Biden has agreed to meet with Putin at all, given the deteriorating relations between the two states, to which the frequent response is that the two most powerful military nations must discuss topics of interest. Biden also has the unfortunate prequel of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, during which Donald J. Trump denied that the Russians had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election and even agreed that the United States was responsible for starting the Cold War. There are numerous topics for discussion potentially, with few on which an agreement is likely. This paper will focus on those pertaining to Belarus and Ukraine, while offering first a sweeping look at other areas where some agreements might be possible.

Cyber Attacks

First of all, the period of the pandemic has seen an expansion of cyber attacks on various targets, including the US Colonial Pipeline and the Brazilian JBS meat company, which provides meat for much of North America. While the identity of the hackers is not well known, the FBI posits that some groups resident in Russia and other East European states are almost certainly the perpetrators. The hackers have benefited from the work-from-home routine during Covid, as well as the increased dependence on crypto-currency. They often receive high ransom payments Colonial Pipeline reportedly paid them $4.4 million, while University of California at San Francisco paid $1.4 million after a malware attack last year. Conceivably, the Russia side could make some concessions on this question. In the past, no hackers have ever been extradited to the US from Russia.

The Pandemic

The pandemic itself is an issue of concern to both countries. Currently, the United States is in a stronger position than Russia in terms of both vaccinations and the reliability of the vaccines being used. Russia is struggling with a lack of trust of the population regarding the efficacy of Sputnik-5, not least because it appears the vaccine was rushed into production without a sufficient testing period. Russia could offer support to the United States in its quest to ascertain the source of the pandemic and in comparing responses.

Nuclear Weapons

Third, and perhaps most obviously, is the possibility of collaboration on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 2020, the United States spent significantly more than Russia on nuclear weapons: $35.4 billion, followed by China at $10.4, the UK at $8.9, and Russia at $8.5 billion. Russia has claimed that its weapons are intended solely for deterrence and only under extreme circumstances. Russia, however, is superior in ground forces, and particularly with tanks. In terms of overall military spending, the United States is  also well ahead ($612 billion per year compared to Russia’s $77 billion). Despite its swagger, and the use of mercenaries in conflict zones such as Syria and Venezuela, Russia essentially is able to control fully only its own defined region, which roughly equates to the former Soviet Union and its ports in Syria.

Nuclear weapons are thus the great equalizer in determining future agreements. They form the background to discussions about the conflict zones in eastern Donbas, occupied Crimea, and the situation in Belarus after the fraudulent elections of August 2020. In 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threatened the use of such weapons in the event of attempts from outside to overturn the Russian annexation of Crimea. President Oback Barama took him at his word, and commented that there was no military solution to the problem of Crimea. It is unlikely that Biden will venture too far from that position in Geneva, though his rhetoric is likely to be harsher than that of the professorial Obama.

Ukraine and China

President Biden will arrive in Geneva after meetings with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the G-7 countries, and NATO. The implication, in contrast to that of former President Trump, is that he prioritizes his allies and will obtain their comments and advice before meeting with Putin. Of the European countries, the focus will likely to be Germany. Biden has opted not to censure the Nordstream-2 pipeline, which will bypass Ukraine and carry European oil supplies directly to Germany from Russia. In withdrawing the sanctions over the pipeline, Biden is likely acceding to reality: the pipeline is close enough to completion that further delays seems pointless. Moreover, Germany is a powerful European country and vital ally. He may choose to fight with Putin on some issues but the pipeline is not one of them.

But does that mean he is withdrawing support from Ukraine? It is highly unlikely, the frustration of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky notwithstanding. Biden has long defended Ukraine and denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But if one were to rank his areas of concern worldwide, China would almost certainly be higher on the list than the Russian Federation and its zones of activity such as Ukraine and Belarus. China is constantly his topic of conversation and concern. Its threat to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful state will not happen on his watch, Biden has stated. Under its leader Xi Jinping, China has become increasingly autocratic and taken a strong stance on Hong Kong and persecuted its Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, where concentration camps impose a ruthless regime of enforced Mandarin learning. Many Uyhgur dissidents have simply disappeared. Others are being subjected to birth control policies.

The Chinese dilemma a growing power with diminishing respect for democracy and human rights seems to monopolize Biden’s foreign policy thinking, which in turn is less important than his need to restore and build the domestic US economy after the turbulence of the pandemic and the Trump presidency. It renders Putin less an evil than a potential partner, providing that there is some way to come to terms on the most pressing questions in the Russian neighborhood: namely Ukraine and Belarus.

Belarus

These two questions are inexorably linked because of Russia’s response to the situation in Belarus, namely applying pressure to unify foreign policy and media narratives. Until August 2020, Belarus continued to pursue a multi-vectored policy that vacillated between dialogue with the West (defined as the European Union, the UK, and North America) on the one hand, and working with Russia through the various agencies: the Russia-Belarus Union State, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and others. After the Belarusian uprising against the fabricated election results that saw up to 250,000 protesters on the streets of Minsk, the Russian authorities decided to support Lukashenka and help to maintain him in office, even in the short term, and despite of the abuses inflicted by the long-term leader against his own population. In turn, they seek to integrate Belarus more firmly with Russia.

Russian support for Lukashenka manifested itself in terms of both financial and material support, with the threat of military support in the background. The Lukashenka team, however, has continued to make irrational and dangerous decisions, not least, on May 23, the enforced landing of a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius for the sole purpose of arresting Raman Protasevich, one of the founders of the Nekhta Telegram channel that coordinated many of the protests. That action elicited worldwide concern and anger directed toward Lukashenka and his security forces. It has also resulted in a sharp cooling of Ukrainian-Belarusian relations and the closure of the border with Ukraine. Zelensky was particularly concerned by the potential investigation of Protasevich by officials of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) on the invitation of Lukashenka. The implied recognition of the LNR by Lukashenka was a volte-face from his previous neutrality on the Donbas war and position as a mediator through the two Minsk Accords of September 2014 and February 2015.

For Zelensky, the Putin-Lukashenka rapprochement represents a very serious threat, particularly if it results in further military agreements and the prospects of being threatened not only from the eastern border, but also the northern one. In contrast to Ukraine, the depth of anti-Russian sentiment in Belarus is limited, which is one reason why Putin has approached this crisis more cautiously than his reactions to the Euromaidan protests and the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine seven years ago. He is also mindful that the majority of Belarusians would like to see the removal of Lukashenka. Thus, the support for the struggling Belarusian leader derives precisely from his weakness (which is seen as advantageous to Russia), and as a short-term phenomenon.

Biden’s Position

In approaching a problem of such complexity, President Biden has one major weapon, which is raising or reducing US and EU sanctions. There is no question that sanctions have had an adverse impact on Russian economic recovery and that Moscow is seeking some sort of redress. There are other, more symbolic gestures that might also improve Putin’s demeanor: restoration of membership of the G-8 or even the recognition of Russia as a major power with more regular summits. But it is the economic decline and Russia’s reliance on petro-products that represent Putin’s chief problems and on which he seeks some respite.

If Biden asks for some concessions in return for a reduction or repeal of some of the sanctions, what are they likely to be?

 

  1. The release of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny is the most obvious and one that could easily be carried out. Navalny has some support in Russia, but not enough to undermine Putin. And his release would provide Putin with some credibility, undermining the accusations of attempted murder of Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent in 2019.

 

  1. An end to Russian military pressure on Ukraine, such as the massive buildup of Russian troops on the eastern border of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in April, and the conversion of the Azov Sea into a Russian «military lake.» Enhanced US involvement in the area is also plausible, such as the dispatch of US naval vessels to the Black Sea.

 

  1. Joint US-Russian talks, possibly with some EU countries, on the situation in Belarus and possible approaches to constitutional reform. To date, Putin has never acceded to requests either from the Belarusian opposition or Western states for discussions about the future of Belarus. But the Ryanair incident and harsh treatment of Protasevich provides an opening. United States’ NATO allies Poland and Lithuania are currently the main supporters of the Belarusian opposition, but the recent discussions of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouski with US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee may herald a deeper US involvement and much harsher future sanctions on Lukashenka and his security forces. In short, the US could help to accelerate the demise of the Minsk dictator.

Conclusion

In conclusion, one can surmise that Biden’s task is a tough one, dealing with such a skilled leader as Putin, ably assisted by his experienced and uncompromising Foreign Minister Lavrov. On the other hand, as noted above, the United States remains by some margin the world’s most powerful military power. There is no need for Biden to seek compromise, which would in any case be a cardinal error in dealing with Putin. The Western powers are reasonably united and willing to work with the United States. They are dealing with a troublesome environment with the continuing war in the Donbas and the upheaval in Belarus, but they need also to recall their recognition for independent Belarus and independent Ukraine thirty years ago. These states are not Russian satellites, nor do they wish to be.

Moreover, it is critical that the impression given in the previous summit: of United States as a declining power unwilling to cooperate with its own allies and retreating into isolation on such questions as the Syrian crisis; is dispelled. Biden has stated several times that «America is back.» If so, then he needs to negotiate from a position of perceived strength and relative morality and a position of concern for states that are far away from the US domain. We no longer live with a Cold War, but we do see a Russia that has returned to authoritarianism coupled with some insidious characteristics: hybrid warfare, cyber attacks, mercenary warfare, the murder of opposition politicians, and blatant interference in the affairs of its neighboring states, leaving in its wake frozen conflicts that weaken states such as Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and others. Negotiation is thus necessary, but should not be a signal of acceptance of the status quo.

Материал доступен на русском языке: Саммит Путина-Байдена в Женеве

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