The United States and Russia: a meeting of minimums

A first contact that has served to establish "basic rules" in the relationship between the two countries
Atalayar_Cumbre Joe Biden y Vladimir Putin

AP/SAUL LOEB  -   President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange'

Avoiding a new Cold War was what both the United States and Russia wanted to achieve. The bilateral summit that took place in Geneva (Switzerland) was intended to represent a first step in the thawing of relations that had reached their highest level of tension since exactly the Cold War era. It was a meeting of marked importance from which no significant advances were expected, but simply a first step in the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Predictions about the meeting were largely fulfilled. The differences between the US and Russia are on many issues unbridgeable, such as human rights, Ukraine and the repression of the opposition. But some minimal agreements were reached on the return of ambassadors to their respective embassies, as well as improving the nuclear arms control framework.

US President Joe Biden arrived at the summit with his counterpart Vladimir Putin with renewed alliances. The US president is said to have met with the leaders of the G7, as well as with the various NATO leaders and finally with representatives of the European Union. During the various meetings, Biden has always delivered the same message: "America is back, and on the side of its allies". This is a reversal of the strategy of the previous US president, Donald Trump, who opted for bilateral relations and isolationism on the part of the United States.

Atalayar_Cumbre Joe Biden y Vladimir Putin
SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL METZEL via REUTERS - U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on the occasion of the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva

However, Joe Biden has put his country back on the path of multilateralism and has done so in a big way, with his first trip abroad being a European tour in which he has tried to regain the trust of his Atlantic allies, which had been seriously damaged under Trump. Moreover, he has used this trip to place China at the heart of the international debate, elevating the country to the category of "threat to the West". As a result, the US president arrived in Geneva with completely renewed and reinforced alliances, i.e., with his rearguard well covered ahead of his imminent meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Both the United States and Russia have long assumed that they will never be allies and that their policies at home and abroad are antagonistic, but Joe Biden came to the summit with the intention of establishing "ground rules" that would allow for a "stable" and "predictable" relationship with the Kremlin. The US has identified China as the real threat of the 21st century, while relegating Russia to the status of a "challenge". For Joe Biden, this summit was intended to stage a first contact, as well as to establish ground rules and be able to focus all his energies on the Asian giant, without Moscow being more than a minor nuisance.

Once the meeting was over, both leaders agreed that it had been "positive" and "constructive". A meeting that was expected to last a long time due to the number of burning issues on the table, but which in the end did not even last four hours and the direct dialogue lasted only two, foreshadowing the lack of understanding between the two. Indeed, there were few issues on which the two leaders agreed, and they did not even hold a joint press conference, a detail that clearly denotes mistrust.

Atalayar_Cumbre Joe Biden y Vladimir Putin
REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE - U.S. President Joe Biden holds a press conference after the U.S.-Russia summit

The first to assess the summit was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described US President Joe Biden as an "experienced statesman, very different from Trump". Biden, for his part, stressed that his "agenda was not against Russia" and that he would continue to raise his voice in defence of "fundamental rights". Among the issues on which some understanding was reached, which were substantially few, was improving nuclear arms control, with particular emphasis on Iran. In the US president's own words, "we agreed to work together on that because it is as important to Russia's interests as it is to ours".

Talks on a return to the Iran nuclear deal are currently stalled. Both Washington and Moscow were part of the 2015 agreement, which former US president Donald Trump decided to unilaterally pull out of in 2018. Both countries are again part of the ongoing negotiations to facilitate a return to the deal.

They also agreed during the meeting to reopen humanitarian corridors in Syria. Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, currently holds the key veto when the UN Security Council votes next month on extending the authorisation of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and rebel-held northwest Syria, the last aid crossing into the country.

Atalayar_Cumbre Joe Biden y Vladimir Putin
REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE - Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a press conference after the U.S.-Russia summit

Another issue on which agreement was reached was cybersecurity, which is of vital importance to the US president, who has accused Moscow of being behind multiple cyberattacks on critical US infrastructure, the latest of which forced the shutdown of the major colonial pipeline on the East Coast, one of America's major energy arteries. President Vladimir Putin announced that the two leaders have agreed to begin consultations on cybersecurity.

In this line, Joe Biden has set clear red lines in terms of cybersecurity, the US president has conveyed to the Russian leader the existence of 16 strategic infrastructures that should be exempt from cyberattacks and warned that if these red lines are not respected, the United States has "significant cyber capabilities" and will respond.

Atalayar_Cumbre Joe Biden y Vladimir Putin
KEYSTONE/PETER KLAUNZER via AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden, right, during the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland

Among the issues of disagreement, all the others. The case of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence, has been one of the main points of disagreement between the two leaders. President Biden stressed that there would be "devastating consequences" for Russia if Navalny died in prison. The Russian president responded to accusations of restrictions on political freedoms in Russia by comparing the case of Alexei Navalny to the arrests following the storming of the Capitol in the United States on 6 January.

Ukraine, another major sticking point, remained unresolved. While Vladimir Putin was unwilling to make concessions on Russia's growing military presence near Ukraine's eastern border, the US insisted on its "unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity". All in all, it was a meeting of much ado about nothing. The United States and Russia took each other's pulse and looked each other in the face for the first time since Joe Biden arrived at the White House. A first contact that has served to establish some "minimums" in the relationship between the two countries, and that serves the United States to focus on China, which it considers to be the most direct threat.