The Biden-Putin Geneva Summit: Analysis & Geopolitical Implications

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis & Bob Savic

Reading between the lines: The United States to develop LatAm, Eurasia & Africa to Moscow & Beijing 

Preamble: Badly Behaved Journalists

Scuffles? People being pushed to the ground? General mayhem, havoc, and chaos? Bad language? Such was the media scrum trying to take photos of the US and Russian Presidents together. Both Biden and Putin looked on with some amusement. But its ok, media blamed it all on Russian security afterwards, even though the event was actually held in Switzerland.

Meanwhile: The China Context

Before the summit, we felt it interesting how the US President believed that Russia wanted to come to the table to talk with the United States in the context of the rise of “Russia’s huge neighbor China, and the 3000-mile border Russia shares with China, a country which has set its sights on becoming the world’s largest economically and militarily”.

Clearly this was a classic piece of divide and conquer juxta positioning aimed directly against the Chinese. However, all the problems Russia faces have largely come from an incrementally aggressive American policy. We feel this was pretty lame brinkmanship, as will the Russians.

The Main Points Disclosed By Biden & Putin In Their Respective Press Conferences

Diplomatic communications to be restored and enhanced in various sectors

The principal constructive outcome of the summit was that of re-establishing communication between Russia and the United States. As such, there was an agreement to return their respective ambassadors to their diplomatic posts, which President Putin said could happen the day after the summit or day after that.

The speed of this re-posting serves as a sure sign of both sides’ consideration of the importance to re-engage with each other for the relationship to become “stable and predictable” in accordance with Biden’s stated objective, and to establish cooperation where it is in each other’s mutual interest. Putin, though, made the point that the deterioration in relations between the two sides was not initiated by the Russians, but by the United States, something he has stated consistently since the events in Georgia in 2008 and the subsequent fallout with the administration of George W. Bush.

As examples of American unpredictability in foreign policy towards Russia, Putin cited how the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies Agreement.

Nevertheless, Biden stated there was no substitute for face-to-face dialogue between leaders and that both share a responsibility to manage a unique relationship between two powerful and proud countries. According to Putin, the meeting took place in a constructive spirit and that the talks were efficient, substantive, specific and aimed at achieving results. He also said that a two-hour meeting, where both presidents looked each other eye-to-eye, was not something that can be done with many politicians and that the positive backdrop was set by Biden assuming responsibility for prolonging START 3 for another five years. Both sides also expressed their intentions to understand each other and seek common ground on three so-called “red lines”, namely strategic security, cybersecurity, and the Arctic region.

Strategic weapons stability dialogue

Discussions on diplomatic issues included an agreement on launching, from the day of the summit, a ‘bilateral strategic stability dialogue’.  This would entail military experts and diplomats establishing a mechanism that can lead to control of new and sophisticated weapons that are being introduced and which reduce the time of response to an incident thereby raising the prospects of accidental war.

The summit went into some detail on what those weapons systems were and that both Russia and the US will be looking for solutions in resolving the potential of conflict in this area. Both leaders also asserted their desire to achieve strategic stability in the world, given as President Putin put it, ‘the two countries are the world’s biggest nuclear powers along with the highest quality of modern nuclear weaponry.’

Consultations will begin on an interagency level between the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US State Department.  Details of the consultation will be hammered out by delegates at diplomatic missions and will talk about the structure and agenda of consultations in due course, according to Putin.

Cybersecurity dialogue

Both sides agreed to begin consultations on cybersecurity which they feel are “very important”. According to Putin, various sources provide evidence that most cyber-attacks in the world arose from three countries, being the United States, Canada, and the UK.  Putin also stated that Russia received ten requests from the United States about cyber-attacks on US sites, with just two such requests in 2021.

In contrast, Russia filed 45 requests with the United States concerning cyber-attacks on Russian sites in 2020, and 35 the year before, but received no response from the American authorities despite there being reporting structures and protocols in place to do so.

Putin gave as an example, a cyber- attack on Russia’s health system and how Russia encounters these types of cyber-attacks every year.  However, Putin added that the United States has not been particularly interested in looking into cyber-attacks on Russia but has been very interested in making insinuations.

Both however agreed that cyberspace is critical for each of them.  Biden stated that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack, whether by cyber or any other means. The US President said he supplied Putin with a list of 16 entities, defined as critical infrastructure under US policy.

Biden went on to say that in practice responsible countries should act against criminals conducting ransomware activities on their territory. As a result, both agreed to engage experts to work on specific understandings about what is off limits and follow up on specific cases where it originates in either of their countries.

Foreign policy

Ukraine

Putin said that the United States is placing a large amount of military equipment up to the Russian border, through Ukraine, and so emphasized that it was important to look at what the US military is carrying out in Ukraine, rather than what Russia’s activities have been near to Ukraine’s border. However, Putin also stated that Biden agreed that the situation in Ukraine can only be settled in accordance with the Minsk Agreements and that both supported pursuing diplomacy through these agreements.

Afghanistan, Syria, Libya & Iran

According to Biden, Putin offered to help the US in its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to avoid a resurgence of terrorism there.

In return, Biden said the United States wanted to provide economic and physical security to people in Syria and Libya. They also agreed to work together on Iran not acquiring nuclear weapons as being equally in both countries’ interests.

The Arctic

On the Arctic, where Russia and the United States share borders, both countries want to see the region is an area of cooperation rather than conflict.

Putin talked about the need for Russia and the US to jointly work with all interested parties in developing the Arctic, particularly under the auspices of the Arctic Council, currently chaired by Russia.  Accordingly, he reiterated the importance for international standards and norms to be adhered to and that preservation of the region’s natural environment was paramount.  Even so, climate change was likely to give rise to an opening of the Northern Sea Passage and he suggested that the modus-operandii would be for the creation of a “free zone” in respect of which, the details will be discussed by both sides.

Other Commentary

Russia’s Global Trade & Diplomatic Expansion

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, set the bar for Wednesday’s talks low. “The principal takeaway, in the positive sense, from the Geneva meeting would be making sure that the United States and Russia did not come to blows physically, so that a military collision is averted,” he said.”

Given that Russia is building a small-scale military presence, at the invitation of governments in many developing world countries under American and European sanctions, alongside years of disintegrating communications and diplomatic channels, the prospect of a potential military clash has been growing.

For instance, in 2019, Russian forces set up in Venezuela, where a reported 100 military advisers have been stationed. Similar patterns of low level Russian military presence are evident in other developing countries out of favor with Washington including many in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Biden has recognized the risks arising from this ongoing Russian military expansion, hence the impromptu talks where no agenda, for first time ever in such summits, was laid out. Clearly, both the Americans and Russians seem interested in not placing the issue of Russian conventional military expansion across key strategic countries in the developing world, at the center of the public eye or global media glare.

Africa

On geopolitics, the Russian military advance in Africa mirrors that of South Asia. As the United States withdraws troops from the region, this is creating a power vacuum which Russia and China are speedily capitalizing on. This is particularly true in Southern Africa where Putin concluded military cooperation agreements recently with Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and others. These defense and security agreements go hand in hand with trade agreements and especially on diamond and metals mining, oil, and gas deals.

This from CNN:

“Russia sees big opportunities across Africa as the US military presence there is scaled back and as cash-strapped governments seek security assistance. Moscow has signed more than 20 defense agreements with African governments, and last month Putin welcomed 43 heads of state or government from Africa to a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. In return, the Kremlin gains strategic influence and preferential access to the continent’s vast natural wealth, from gas to gold.”

Space Cooperation

(The following comments are from an earlier Russia Briefing article):

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, present during part of the Geneva talks has previously made pro-Russia remarks and held talks with the Russian space agency RosComsos chief Dmitry Rogozin last week, stating “Despite the politics, and some of the rather less than soft statements you hear that sound more political, nevertheless if you talk to the Russian space workers, they want this cooperation to continue with the Americans. So I talked to Rogozin about this. I’ve said, ‘This is unique, the kind of relationship where we can be at peace cooperating with each other, no matter what our rivalries are on terra firma. We are partners in space, and I don’t want that to cease.”

Russia and the US have been working together on projects such as the International Space Station (ISS) for decades. While until Elon Musk’s SpaceX vehicle was recently able to reach the ISS, service flights carrying astronauts, equipment, and supplies have all been sent by Russian rockets since 2011.

Nelson also stated that “We’ve seen, for example, just recently Russia developed a new module that they are going to launch to the International Space Station, which I think is a pretty good indication that they’re not going to abandon it. Our politics have become very strained. But where is the one area that we have been able to cooperate? It’s been ever since 1975 when an American spacecraft in the middle of the Cold war rendezvoused and docked with a Russian spacecraft, and the crews lived together for nine days. Ever since we have been cooperating.”

A sticking point for continued NASA cooperation however is US sanctions on Russia, a point Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin made after his discussions with Nelson, saying that “We have nothing against cooperation with NASA, but the only way to do it is lifting the sanctions against Roscosmos enterprises.”

The US needs a domestic, unifying grand project and calls for a US return to the moon and NASA already working on the Artemis project indicate this is going ahead. Getting there though may need some Russian assistance – as Moscow has kept up its technological space development during a period where the United States has taken a back seat. Washington will also be motivated into action by the joint Russian and Chinese plans to build a permanent lunar base and deflect any future US domestic feeling that America is being left behind.

Russia sanctions

(The following comments are from an earlier Russia Briefing article)

Lifting sanctions against Russia will meet with resistance from the EU, where a vociferous anti-Russian lobby made up from ex-Soviet Union states retains a noisy anti-Russian presence. Lifting some sanctions on Russia will also aid the United States in fostering alternative supply chains to those controlled by China. A warming of trade and technical ties with Russia to allow the US Artemis Moon shot a better chance of success, however a need to diversify supply chains from China also requires the assistance of Moscow.

Finally, US President Biden Tells CNN Journalist To Be Negative

In a rare insight illustrating how US media is directed by the State, US President Biden, frustrated by a question from CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins at the end of his press conference, told her she was ‘in the wrong business’. Biden later stated “To be a good reporter, you’ve got to be negative. You’ve got to have a negative view of life … you never ask a positive question.”

Kaitlan Collins obtained a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Alabama and was a White House correspondent from January 2017, prior to joining CNN six months later. She has extensive experience in White House and political journalism.

Summary

Summits such as these are never as direct as they possess a multi-faceted approach: A joint appearance, high-level discussions, global security, China, a US domestic political angle to appeal to voters, a Russian domestic political angle to appeal to citizens, and all the content that needs to be squeezed in. Then there are the discussions held in private, not intended for public consumption but which must have been on the agenda given their immediate and strategic importance, such as the NASA projects. They will now filter down to be dealt with at respective levels. but not without having first received Presidential approval.

However, although much remains behind closed doors in terms of details, the summit can be considered some success as the two leaders have now met. A push back against Washington hawks appears to have occurred, with respective Ambassadors now being permitted to return to their respective posts.

Nonetheless it does appear apparent from Biden’s G7 discussions and the roll-out of the ‘Built Back Better World’ (B3W) initiative, promoted as being an antidote to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that Washington is in fact conceding large amounts of territory to joint Chinese and Russian influence. We say this because the B3W, despite talk of huge amounts of infrastructure spend – US$40 trillion – is unlikely to ever amount to much as no G7 state funding is being put into it – hardly a sign of confidence to the private sector, who in Biden’s introduction of the B3W stated would be footing the bill. We imagine that went down well in boardrooms across the largest economies in the world.

We have also heard from Biden talking about the US investing in Latin American infrastructure as part of the B3W, which would be a useful counterpoint to China’s global infrastructure build. The United States has long ignored the region, which is right on its doorstep and can be developed as a supply chain source on its own terms. After all, the United States has its eyes set on developing alternatives to Chinese supplies.

Additionally, as the United States is pulling out of a hugely expensive, 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan, that money can now be diverted to build back better projects closer to home. Central Asia, where Afghanistan occupies a central connecting point, thus becomes under Asian, rather than American influence and direction for the first time in thirty years, and this time with a far stronger Russian military and the massive economic might of China to see put right.

Overall, then, we see the Biden-Putin summit and the recent G7 summit as the signs, despite the public consumption rhetoric, that the United States is in retreat from parts of the global stage and is handing over – albeit reluctantly and not without some barbs attached – to a partnership of China and Russia. This appears especially true in Asia and Africa.

The United States will wish to keep the EU as its exclusive market and will develop Latin America. Eurasia will combine Central and North Asia with South. Southeast and East Asia, with a significant presence in the Middle East and Africa. There will be the occasional ripples of discontent, and sabre-rattling as tempers occasionally fray, however we feel this past few days have given rise to a new geo-political era, and one in which it is the United States who withdraws back to the America’s, keeps the European Union, but effectively devolves the rest of the world.

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About Us

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Publisher of Russia Briefing and a Visiting Professor at the Moscow State University in St. Petersburg.
Bob Savic is a senior research fellow at the Global Policy Institute.

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