By Gabriel Gavin, in Moscow.
It is hard to guess what Vladimir Putin was thinking as he climbed up the steps of his plane on the runway in Geneva on Wednesday, having flown in just hours prior for a summit with his new American counterpart, Joe Biden.
The Russian president gave little away while speaking to journalists after the head-to-head came to an end, praising Biden as a “statesman” and saying the talks were constructive. The US leader, however, sent more mixed messages, announcing that there is now a “genuine prospect to significantly improve relations” with Moscow, while also emphasizing that he had taken Putin to task over “human rights.”
With the world watching for any sign of a substantial thaw in relations between their two nations, the starting pistols were fired in the race for columnists and commentators to pick their winner. But, in reality, both men will have come away knowing they did, as Biden himself put it, “what I came to do.”
Heroes and villains
Putin was always bound to be cast as an adversary in the West’s media narrative around the summit. While Biden, proposing the meeting back in April, said that it would help to foster “a stable and predictable relationship with Russia,” he added that it would have to be one “consistent with US interests.”
Coming as the climax of the Democratic Party politician’s first overseas visit, the meeting was a chance for him to signal “America is back,” rejecting the foreign policy approaches championed by his predecessor, Donald Trump. For the domestic audience, this meant taking on Russia and talking tough in the same way that generations of US politicians had before him. It also meant giving up on Trump’s brutally self-interested realpolitik, and once again returning to Washington’s usual approach of using talk of human rights as a foreign policy instrument, and advocating the country’s values overseas.
Despite the constant barrage of claims that Trump harbored secret sympathies towards Russia, a departure from his approach would not have been unwelcome in the Kremlin. Putting aside some mutual curiosity, the relationship between Putin and the Republican leader never really took off, and his most bombastic officials, like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, tended to ensure that the ties between the two nations were in a state of hostility.
Biden, by contrast, is far more predictable, with little ideological space between him and, for example, Barack Obama, who he served under as vice president. However, he had made it clear that he has a far from rosy view of Putin. In March, a diplomatic furore was sparked when Biden was asked whether he believed Putin to be a “killer” in an interview with ABC News. “Mmm hmm, I do,” Biden replied.
Domestic politics on the international stage
Speaking in the days leading up to the meeting, Biden presented what he hoped would be seen as taking a principled stance on “human rights” and civil liberties, with Putin positioned as a convenient opponent. “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,” he said. Curiously, he added, “it’s time to remind everybody who we are,” suggesting the audience for the meeting was far broader than just the two men in the room.
Putin, however, was apparently unfazed by this approach, given that it is an almost required performance for any American leader looking to open up communication with Russia, in order to maintain their domestic credentials and not be seen to be too cosy. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had previously said that the ‘killer’ comments wouldn’t overshadow the meeting, while the Kremlin had also insisted Russia wouldn’t sit through a one-sided lecture on human rights.
The narrative after the showdown is one that will have pleased Biden. While clear progress was made on military issues, cybersecurity, and the status of the Arctic – where there have been warnings of potential land grabs on both sides – the constructive nature of the meeting came with the caveat that he had pressed Putin on issues like the treatment of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny. This, it would seem, was a good day for both international politics and Biden’s domestic political reputation.
Happy with the headlines
For Putin, though, the fact that the meeting was set up in the first place was a success. For an American leader’s first foreign trip to be so dominated by discussion of Russia, and for the country’s president to get top billing for the European tour, is a sign that Moscow still has global political sway. While China may be playing an even greater economic role on the world stage, and have more areas of genuine political difference with the US and its allies, it is Russia that occupies a unique place in the minds of Western leaders.
The Russian president also made it clear he wouldn’t take international criticisms lying down, and would give as good as he got on the issue of human rights. Facing questions from American reporters about whether Biden pressed him on questions of a “crackdown” on domestic opposition, Putin rejected the idea out of hand. The Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters earlier this year showed, he said, that America has its own deep-seated issues.
While the answers were held up by many Western commentators as ‘whataboutery’, and an effort to dodge the reporters’ challenges, they actually speak to a widely-held feeling in Russia that the US has no real moral authority on the matter. Few Russians, even those opposed to Kremlin policy, look to Washington for an example these days. Things have moved on rapidly since the days when America was held up as a shining beacon for those in the country.
The game plan for both Putin and Biden, it seems, was to focus on the issues where common ground could be achieved, shut down discussion in areas where it couldn’t, and then sell the narrative in front of the waiting cameras. If the objective of the Geneva summit was to de-escalate strained relations while winning glowing headlines back home, then both leaders got what they came for.