With Russian-U.S. relations at a low not seen since the Cold War, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were set to meet in Geneva on June 16 for their first major summit — just months after the U.S. president said he believes his Russian counterpart is a killer.
The summit comes as Putin continues to consolidate his dominance of the country’s political system, squeezing opposition activists like Aleksei Navalny and throttling independent media and NGOs ahead of Russia’s September parliamentary elections.
A spokeswoman for Biden, the fourth U.S. president to meet with Putin, says the White House is “neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate.” But Biden is also taking a sharper tack than his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Since taking office, Biden has hit Russia with two rounds of economic sanctions. But he’s agreed to extend the New START arms control treaty.
Biden also has declined to block completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will increase Russian gas exports to Germany and decrease transit fees paid to Ukraine for use of its pipeline network.
For Putin, now in his 21st year as Russia’s preeminent leader, the summit amounts to a meeting of “Great Powers” — a reflection of his nostalgia for Soviet might and a way to show his domestic audience that Russia can go toe-to-toe with the United States on questions of global importance.
The agenda includes issues like arms control, cybercrime and espionage, climate change, and COVID-19.
Putin has signaled that what is off limits for the summit is criticism of his record on human rights and civil society.
That includes last year’s assassination attempt against Navalny, who has become Putin’s most capable political opponent.
The findings by German and international laboratories that Navalny was targeted with a powerful Soviet-developed nerve agent, banned by international treaty, shocked many in the West, as did the Kremlin’s decision to jail Navalny on what his supporters say is a laughable pretext.
During a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 14, Biden was asked about the upcoming summit, and specifically about Navalny.
“Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights,” he said. “It would be a tragedy, it would do nothing but hurt relations with the rest of the world, and me.”
Whether Biden will succeed in raising Navalny’s case is unclear.
“You can evaluate our political system in different ways,” Putin told editors from several international news agencies on June 4. “Just give us the right, please, to determine for ourselves how to organize this part of our life.”
Yuri Ushakov, the Kremlin’s leading foreign policy adviser, told reporters in Moscow on June 14 that nuclear stability, climate change, and cybersecurity were on the agenda for the talks.
But he also signaled low expectations — a fact underscored by the two sides’ decision to hold separate news conferences rather than a joint meeting with the press, as usually happens.
“I am not sure that any agreements will be reached,” Ushakov said. “Let’s see, I don’t know. I look at this meeting with practical optimism, but not much.”
The White House has elevated cybersecurity to an urgent matter, after U.S. intelligence alleged that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service has hacked into dozens of U.S. government computer systems.
A spate of ransomware attacks has also alarmed U.S. officials, who say many of the criminal groups behind the attacks are based in Russia, and Russian authorities are doing little to stop them.
Putin has suggested he would consider turning over cybercriminals to the United States, if Washington did the same, though he gave no details about how that would work.
Ushakov also said the fate of U.S. and Russian nationals who are in prison in each other’s countries would be on the agenda. The United States has for months pressed for the release of two U.S. citizens — ex-Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed — jailed under what U.S. officials say are trumped-up charges.
Russia has complained for years about the jailing of its citizens in the United States, many of whom were arrested in third countries and extradited to the United States.
Among those Moscow has honed in on are convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout and former pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
An issue that experts are more optimistic the two leaders could agree on is the return of ambassadors to each other’s capitals.
“This is the first meeting in such difficult conditions that have developed in bilateral relations,” Ushakov said. “I think that both sides understand that it is time to start clearing up the debris that has been created.”