Biden-Putin Summit: Showdown, or Just for Show?

On the heels of a European tour intended to galvanize traditional American rivals for an era of great power competition, President Joe Biden yesterday arrived in Geneva – “the city of peace” – for a much-anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. News conferences for both leaders followed the formal meeting — the contents of which suggested that, despite the hot-button issues on the agenda, the proceedings were marked by an atmosphere of polite candor. While some longstanding issues on military matters and human rights were part of the talks, cyber issues were front and center.

In front of the press, Putin denied any Russian involvement in the recent spate of cyberattacks on U.S. companies and institutions, and on recent Russian-related human rights issues, he turned to what-aboutism, citing the January 6th Capitol riot and BLM protests over the previous year. In short, it seemed that while the occurrence of the talks themselves might be considered a diplomatic success (including a promise to return diplomats to respective posts), there wasn’t much evidence of concrete progress on critical issues between the two nations. Opinions of two flavors, with dueling congressional press releases as proxies, are dominating the aftermath:

Some, like Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), take the line that a diplomatic summit shouldn’t have happened at all, arguing that they legitimize Putin — and further, set U.S. policy on a course for our diplomats to be taken for fools:  

“We’re rewarding Putin with a summit? Putin imprisoned Alexei Navalny and his puppet Lukashenko hijacked a plane to get Roman Protasevich. Instead of treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people, we’re giving him his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline and legitimizing his actions with a summit. This is weak.” 

Others, such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), framed the summit as a victory for re-engagement, and further, a welcome turning of the page from the Trump Administration, which many saw as (at best) too soft on Putin:

“The policy of the last president to placate and appease Putin undermined our national interests, damaged international institutions and alliances, emboldened the Kremlin to interfere in our elections, and allowed cybercriminals to operate with impunity within Russia’s borders. This summit will hopefully mark a new chapter in our relationship with Russia – one consistent with our values and interests.”

So, the question at the heart of the disagreement: was the Geneva summit, while certainly short on deliverables, the start of a constructive relationship or, seen more skeptically, are American policymakers just kidding themselves?

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