Vladimir Putin’s cortege of sleek black vehicles crawled across the tarmac at an airport outside Geneva today. The convoy would carry the Russian President to Villa La Grange, a stately home in the Swiss city, for head-to-head talks with his US counterpart, Joe Biden.
The summit comes at the climax of the American leader’s first overseas trip since taking office, and he has sought to use a high-profile appearance with G7 allies to send the message that “America is back.” The Democrat claims that years of neglect under his predecessor, Donald Trump, have driven bilateral relations to rock bottom, and declared a need to reassert the United States’ self-declared role at the helm of the free world.
When Biden proposed the meeting back in April, it was seen as an effort to turn around a rapidly worsening political and military standoff between the two nations, with fierce fighting in Eastern Ukraine sparking a build-up of troops on both sides of the border and fears of a full-blown conflict. Sitting down to talk, Biden said, would help foster “a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, consistent with US interests.”
Since then, though, both the Kremlin and the White House have sought to play down any speculation that it will bring about a paradigm shift. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, warned in the run up to the encounter that it would be wise “not to indulge in any excessive expectations about the potential outcomes of the meeting.” No documents will be signed or treaties forged, he added.
For their part, Biden’s officials have also indicated that the trip is not a charm offensive, with press secretary Jen Psaki saying that it would be a frank exchange, dealing with a “full range of pressing issues.” The “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine is understood to be on the agenda, days after Kiev caused a minor media storm when journalists suggested Biden had promised the country admission to NATO.
The claims, it turned out, were overhyped and the commitment was an old one. However, it is clear that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is intent on pressing Biden for membership of the bloc, which has long been seen as a red line for Russia. While it is hard to justify why Moscow would have a veto on Kiev’s ambitions to join any international organisation it wishes, the move would be widely seen as a provocation and would, in practice, offer NATO little of value. Stationing American troops and warplanes close to the Russian borders is unlikely to contribute much to regional security.
If Biden is seeking to turn down the tensions on the military front, he has indicated he will ratchet them up when it comes to domestic politics. In a bombastic speech a fortnight ago, Biden played up his commitment to human rights and said “I’m meeting with President Putin in a couple weeks in Geneva, making it clear we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights.” Tellingly, he added: “It’s time to remind everybody who we are,” indicating the audience for the summit is far wider than just the two men in the room.
The treatment of jailed Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, allegations of interference in US elections and Moscow’s purported role in the SolarWinds cyber-espionage breach are all expected to be on the agenda. The Kremlin, which denies the allegations, has insisted it won’t be lectured on internal issues, and that it would in turn raise the treatment of the pro-Trump rioters who stormed Washington’s Capitol earlier this year, arguing that subsequent prosecutions represent a worrying crackdown on opposition.
Yet given the time allocated to talks is short, it is unlikely that Putin and Biden will find much common ground on any of these issues. Instead, the showdown offers up an opportunity for both to play to their domestic audiences and to their international partners. Biden will almost certainly use the event to win plaudits from commentators back home, talking tough on Russia and going hand-to-hand with Putin. For Russia though, the fact that the American leader has set up the meeting for his very first foreign trip would seem to cement its claims to continue to be a superpower that cannot be sidelined, with political significance in the West that far outstrips its vast neighbour, China.
With both men pressing the flesh in front of the cameras in Switzerland, it remains to be seen whether the mutual mistrust and political tension that brought them together will be turned round, or whether it will be worsened. In any case, while what is discussed in the room is unlikely to be of lasting significance to either, once the two leaders are outside, selling their version to the public, it will be all to play for.