“This is in our mutual interest,” U.S. President Joe Biden said at a news conference after the June 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His observation says it all.
The long-awaited summit in Geneva did not bring about a maritime change in US-Russia relations. There was no expectation, on either side, that much would be done to repair the ties, which are currently at their worst in recent decades.
Moscow and Washington are considered rivals and this will continue to be the case in the future. There is no way to avoid it, both for strategic and ideological reasons. “Restorations” are a thing of the past. Donald Trump’s openings to the Russians, particularly the unfortunate summit in Helsinki in July 2018, only made things worse.
By contrast, the three-hour meeting between Putin and Biden seems to have gone relatively well. With the bar so low, the two leaders agreed on a handful of small steps that, if followed, will lower the temperature between Washington and Moscow. It’s a simple formula: stand by the controversial issues and look for areas where it’s as much as possible as you wish.
The summit made a brief joint statement highlighting the achievements of Russian-American cooperation in strategic arms control since the beginning of this year. In a phone call on Jan. 26, Putin and Biden agreed to extend the New Start treaty, which was due to expire in February, for another five years. This gave both parties time to work out a replacement agreement.
In addition, the two presidents agreed to return their ambassadors to their respective capitals, restoring normal diplomatic relations. Both diplomats were withdrawn by their governments in March-April, apparently “for consultations.”
The test case of how far the commitment can go is the great Middle East. There are several issues that were discussed during the meeting. In Syria, the U.S. government wants a coordinated strategy to provide humanitarian aid, possibly through a crossing of the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Iranian nuclear deal is another issue that was raised and in which Washington and Moscow could cooperate. The Biden administration has resumed talks with Tehran on how to return the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan. Russia, as a signatory to the agreement and a partner in Iran, has a clear stake.
Afghanistan after the withdrawal could turn out to be another area of mutual interest. Neither the United States nor Russia would want the Taliban to return to power in Kabul. With the disappearance of Western troops and Moscow more concerned about the rise of radicalism in the region than American expansionism, there is more likely to be cooperation.
If Russians and Americans find common ground on these critical issues, history will judge the Geneva summit favorably.
However, there is no room for agreement on key issues. With a pragmatic mindset, the Biden team noted that they felt aversion to cutting the Kremlin to any extent from the reduction of internal opposition in Russia or the Ukrainian war. The United States must strike a good balance: on the one hand, by betting on democratic principles, and on the other, by committing itself to Russia and treating it as a great power. Biden’s reference to Putin as a “worthy adversary” is music to the Kremlin’s ears, as it signals respect.
However, Washington will not switch to realpolitik and set aside values and principles. That said, the summit yielded almost nothing to Ukraine, which, weeks ago, dominated the headlines. There is simply no room for a geopolitical compromise between the United States and Russia of the kind Putin would like to see.
As a result, the Moscow establishment will continue to view America with suspicion and accuse it of promoting “regime change” and “color revolutions,” as it has done almost since the mid-2000s. In the meantime, the U.S. will see Russia as a standard-bearer of global authoritarianism alongside China.
Part of Biden’s mission in Geneva was to convey a message that the U.S. government would fight any attempt by the Russians to cause trouble in the American homeland, either through cyberattacks or other forms of political interference, as in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
Can this minimalist formula of bilateral relations defended by Biden but also endorsed by the Kremlin work? Only time will tell.
Hostility and mistrust on both sides leave much room for skepticism. It will not take long to provoke new tensions between Moscow and Washington. While the United States prefers to focus on China and the Kremlin prefers to devote its energies to supporting political support at home, the rivalry has developed a life of its own and is highly institutionalized.
But one thing to take away from Geneva is that conditional commitment is not a lost cause. Not in vain, both Biden and Putin came out on top with a visibly optimistic mood. Russia got a part of what it wanted: to be treated as equal by the United States. The Biden administration also got mileage from the meeting it originally proposed in April. The president of the United States seemed to defend himself against Putin, but he also made commitments.
Given the big picture, the era of failed restorations between Russia and the United States is over, spanning the presidencies of Bush, Obama and Trump. What we have now, as Russian foreign policy observer Vladimir Frolov points out, is “respectful hostility.” This state of affairs is likely to be lasting.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.