The coming meeting on June 16 between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a moment of critical importance which will determine the trajectory of relations between the two countries. Although it is unlikely that any major breakthrough will take place, the meeting is the first between the heads of state of the two countries in recent years, following relations that have been severely strained.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing tensions with Ukraine, and the subsequent imposition of US sanctions, there has been little room for meaningful collaboration on matters of international importance. If anything, US sanctions have failed to alter Russia’s actions in any way.
If the tone of the meeting replicates that between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, then it may pave the way for further interactions. But the rhetoric between the two leaders three months ago was far from cordial, with Biden saying in an interview with ABC News that he believes Putin is a killer, and that Putin “is going to pay” for meddling in the 2020 US presidential election.
An US intelligence report had claimed that Russia directed a covert campaign aimed at “denigrating Biden’s candidacy”. At the time Putin responded to Biden’s comments saying that he “wishes Biden good health”, in what some perceived as a dig at Biden’s age. Russia also recalled its ambassador to Washington in protest. More recently Putin has said that he believes the US is trying to hold back Russia's development.
In what has been seen as an escalation in tensions between the two countries, Russia has suggested that moving away from dollar-denominated oil contracts if the US were to impose fresh sanctions.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov confirmed that US dollar assets will be cut from its $186 billion National Wealth Fund, and it would turn the dollar-denominated assets into euros, yuan and gold.
While there seems to be limited areas of common ground, the issues which will likely dominate the agenda of the upcoming meeting will be nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, climate change, Covid-19 and future pandemics. The US has said that it will renew the START treaty. Ukraine, cybersecurity, the targeting of opposition leaders (Alexei Navalny in particular) and detention of Americans will be a priority for the US, and they are likely to discuss tensions with North Korea and Iran, as well as in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Biden will meet Putin at the end of his European visit, having attended the G7 meeting and met with leaders whom he considers US allies. While the US is seeking new stability in its relations with Russia, what is problematic is that Biden will be entering the meeting with Putin using a combative approach that intends to convey the message that “the US is back”, and intends to lead the world from a position of strength. Biden said as much in an editorial he penned for the Washington Post a week ago.
“When I meet with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, it will be after high-level discussions with friends, partners and allies who see the world through the same lens as the United States, and with whom we have renewed our connections and shared purpose.
“We are standing united to address Russia's challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine, and there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests.”
Even more antagonistic was Biden’s statement that Washington would play a global role in “confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia…We will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st century rules around trade and technology.” Some analysts say it is part of the US strategy to encourage Moscow to pivot away from Beijing, as it is difficult for the US to counter both Russia and China simultaneously. It is clear that the US preoccupation going forward is to halt China’s rise as a global power. But any such efforts to get Russia to pivot away from China are unlikely to be successful as the relations between the two countries have never been stronger.
According to Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “in developing China-Russia strategic cooperation, we see no limit, no forbidden zone and no ceiling to how far this cooperation can go”. Putin reinforced this notion by saying that Moscow-Beijing relations have reached their “highest level in history”.
According to Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, “the China-Russia partnership is strong enough to withstand nascent US overtures”.
Russia and China have many common objectives, most important of which is to counter US hegemony and the encirclement of their countries by Nato military bases. If anything, Biden’s combative rhetoric against both Russia and China have pushed the two countries even closer together in a united front against the US.