In front of the cameras, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin each claimed to have had a ‘positive dialogue’ at their Geneva summit meeting. However, once the summit ended, it was Putin who seemed to walk away the winner. Although Biden admittedly walked away with his expectations fulfilled, the bar had been set awfully low for the American president going into the summit. Biden came to Geneva primarily to open a dialogue between himself and Putin and promote a stable, predictable US-Russia relationship. This goal was partly achieved, yet it will take time to determine if the relationship becomes stable and predictable. Beyond that, however, Biden achieved nothing of substance.
The Russian president, on the other hand, took advantage of the opportunity to bask in the limelight. With the attention of the world upon him, he took advantage of the opportunity to elevate his stature back home in Russia. The summit came a few short months before parliamentary elections in Russia are scheduled to be held. Putin’s popularity at home is waning, the Russian economy is faltering and his COVID-19 response has not been effective at all. Yet he appeared strong and confident in Geneva and that projection could help him and his party at the ballot box.
Before arriving in Geneva, President Biden offered two concessions to Russia in the form of extending the START II treaty and removing NordStream 2 sanctions. This left him with very little to negotiate with. In essence, Biden came to the summit without any rounds in the chamber. This may explain his emphasis on human rights issues, especially the fate of Alexei Navalny. Biden warned of serious consequences if the Russian opposition figure dies in prison. Putin did not appear shaken by the warning, especially given comments made in his post-summit press conference. He defended his government’s treatment of Navalny and likened Russia’s opposition protests to the Black Lives Matter protests/riots in US cities last summer. “We feel sympathy for the United States of America but we don’t want that to happen on our territory. We’re doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen.”
Bold words for a man under fire globally for a less-than-stellar human rights record.