Next Wednesday (16), Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will write the thirtieth chapter in the rich history of summit meetings between occupants of the White House and the Kremlin since their countries became rivals at the end of World War II.
These meetings, both in the Soviet Union and in the Russian era after 1991, have always raised expectations of important announcements or, at least, an improvement of the climate between two countries which represent more than 90% of the arsenal. global nuclear power.
There have been historic summits, such as the one which sealed the end of the Cold War in Malta (1989) or the one which began the control of nuclear weapons (Moscow, 1972), and disastrous: in 1960, the Soviet Nikita Khrushchev simply left the meeting, following the downing of an American U2 spy plane in your country.
On Wednesday, in Geneva (Switzerland), none of this is yet to be expected. The number of disputes between the rivals is so great that it fell to veteran Russian chancellor Sergei Lavrov to set the forecast in a speech last week: “Don’t wait for advances”.
“If there had been the idea of repeating a summit like that of 1985 in Geneva, then the agreements would have been discussed before between the heads of diplomacy of the two countries. They did not do that”, explains the economist Ekaterina Zolotova, from the American consultancy firm Geophysical Futures.
Of course, the fact that the meeting is taking place is a step forward in itself, the optimist will say. Certainly, the two leaders indicate that they will take the opportunity to reaffirm their fundamental disagreements, each with a specific objective in mind.
Starting with Biden, author of the meeting invitation and new to the field – in terms, given his long career and eight years as Barack Obama’s deputy (2009-17), but nothing close. two decades of Russian rule.
The American began his tenure in January with a nod to Putin, agreeing to extend the last deal in place to limit strategic nuclear weapons, those that would bring the apocalypse if used.
But in the same announcement, he indicated a constant of his administration: he called for studies on the case of the poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni and on hacker attacks against the U.S. government in 2020.
Biden is telegraphing what he wants to do, and so far his studies are self-fulfilling prophecies.
Said and done, he called Putin a murderer and imposed sanctions for the Navalni affair, as well as promising sanctions for the Kremlin’s alleged action against America’s digital infrastructure and the 2016 and 2020 elections.
In a dangerous escalation in April, he saw Putin mounting a military threat against Ukraine, to ward off the risk of Kiev attempting to invade pro-Russian rebel areas east of his own country.
The confusion has given Russia a chance to give up its terms, which essentially return the territories to Ukraine, but keep them autonomous in a way that makes it impossible to integrate the neighbor into the European institutional framework – NATO, the US-led military alliance ahead.
In the crisis, Biden sided with the fragile Volodimir Zelensky, the actor who presides over Ukraine. How far it would go if the frozen conflict since 2014 – when Putin encouraged it after annexing Crimea to prevent a new government in Kiev from joining the West – has heated up is unknown.
The summit’s demand came exactly during the crisis.
In any case, Ukraine sums up the meeting. Neither side should move. Western sanctions will not be relaxed, any accommodation of the demands would be a huge surprise.
So does the Kremlin’s support for Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who intercepted an Irish commercial plane just to arrest a dissident. Or on the divergent interests in the geopolitics of vaccination against Covid-19.
Mutual criticism is to be expected on NATO’s role, especially since Biden has just made his first summit with the club on Monday (14).
The American is trying to undo the damage done by Trump, who despised the allies, and their fear of Putin’s recent move is a factor.
Two themes can generate additional tensions. One is the issue of human rights, embodied in the treatment of Navalni. To clarify its point of view, Russia banned the Anti-Corruption Fund of the opponent jailed last week.
Another is the issue of cyber attacks, which the Russian president dismisses as the work of his troops.
“It makes no sense to think of progress. Anything that is not lateral is a dead end, worse than at certain periods of Soviet history,” explains Alexei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
By e-mail, he claims that the problem is on the Russian side. “While it was possible to speak to [o líder soviético Leonid] Brezhnev, there’s no point talking to Putin, “he said.
For Biden, all of this animosity serves to build a harsh image while not refusing to speak. In the crosshairs, the internal public who still hear from the allies of his predecessor Donald Trump that the Democrat is cowardly, and Beijing’s strategic rivals.
Zolotova has doubts about exposure to the Chinese. “I think this is a dialogue that only serves national purposes for both,” he said.
Such a game suits Putin in another way. The Russian is in the midst of a campaign to suppress what remains of the opposition on the fringes of his middle class: Navalni, other opponents, journalists, all are now legally labeled “foreign agents” and liable to harassment from the state.
“In the name of hysteria in the fight against so-called foreign agents, the authorities are simply wiping out all civil society in the name of a ‘Western phobia’,” Kolesnikov laments.
He parallels dictator Josef Stalin’s anti-Semitic purge campaign from 1948 to his death in 1953, in which he blamed “rootless cosmopolitans” for Soviet ills.
And nothing more useful to that than Biden’s renewed aggression. The American knows his dominant economic position and calls Putin an inferior, but this is seen as derision by Russian elites, which also carries risks.
As the economy falters, albeit shielded from the effects of sanctions, Putin sometimes signals that he is aware of his weakness in this area. Two weeks ago, he was invited to comment on a speech by new British intelligence chief Richard Moore, who called Russia a “waning power”.
“So why worry? If so, stay calm and don’t deteriorate Anglo-Russian relations,” Putin said, noting that even during the pandemic, trade between countries increased by 54%.
Beyond the sarcasm, there is an admission of the economic vulnerability of Russia, a country very focused on hydrocarbon exports. There comes a time when there may be some progress in Geneva.
On Friday (11), tests began on the use of the first of two lines of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which connects Russia to Germany, increasing European dependence on Putin’s product, facilitating its passage through Ukraine and Belarus complicated.
The United States opposes the project, but it is a done deal. Energy analysts believe Biden could signal an easing of sanctions against the European partners of Russian giant Gazprom.
For the rest, there will be discussions on the issue of nuclear weapons, probably positive, perhaps an agreement on how to end the civil war in Syria and related items such as the return of the ambassadors of the two countries to their countries. posts and standardization of consular services.