“This is in our mutual interest,” US President Joe Biden said at a press conference following his June 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His observation says it all.
The long-awaited summit in Geneva did not bring about a radical change in US-Russian relations. On either side, no one expected much to be done to mend the links, which are currently at their worst in decades.
Moscow and Washington see each other as rivals and this will continue to be the case in the future. There is no way around this, for strategic and ideological reasons. “Resets” are a thing of the past. Donald Trump’s overtures to the Russians, notably the ill-fated Helsinki summit in July 2018, only made matters worse.
In contrast, the three-hour meeting between Putin and Biden appears to have gone relatively well. With the bar set 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: put contentious issues aside and pursue areas where give-and-take is possible and desirable.
The summit resulted in a brief joint statement that highlighted the achievements of Russian-American cooperation in strategic arms control since the start of the year. In a phone call on January 26, Putin and Biden agreed to extend the New Start Treaty, which was due to expire in February, for five years. This gave both parties time to find a replacement agreement.
In addition, the two presidents agreed to send their ambassadors back to their respective capitals, thus restoring normal diplomatic relations. The two diplomats were recalled by their governments in March-April, ostensibly “for consultations”.
The test case to know how far engagement can go is the Greater Middle East. Several issues were addressed during the meeting. In Syria, the US government wants a coordinated humanitarian aid delivery strategy, possibly via a border crossing between Syria and Turkey.
Another issue that has been raised and on which Washington and Moscow could cooperate is the Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration has resumed talks with Tehran on how to return the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Russia, as a signatory to the agreement and a partner of Iran, has a clear interest.
Post-withdrawal Afghanistan could prove to be another area of mutual interest. Neither the United States nor Russia would like to see the Taliban return to power in Kabul. With the departure of Western troops and Moscow more worried about a rise in radicalism in the region than American expansionism, cooperation is more likely.
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 fundamental questions. With the pragmatic spirit that they are, the Biden team has indicated its reluctance to let the Kremlin slack off, whether it is on the repression of national opposition in Russia or the war in Ukraine. The United States must strike the right balance: on the one hand, stick to democratic principles and, on the other hand, engage with Russia and treat it as a great power. Biden’s reference to Putin as a “worthy adversary” is music to the ears of the Kremlin in that it signals respect.
However, Washington will not switch to realpolitik and reject values and principles. Tellingly, the summit yielded next to nothing on Ukraine, which a few weeks ago was making headlines. There is simply no possibility of a geopolitical compromise between the United States and Russia of the kind that Putin might like to see.
As a result, the Moscow establishment will continue to view America with suspicion and blame it for promoting “regime change” and “color revolutions”, as it has done pretty much since the mid-2000s. The United States, meanwhile, will see Russia as a standard bearer of global authoritarianism alongside China.
Part of Biden’s mission in Geneva was to get the message across that the US government would fight against any attempt by the Russians to stir up trouble in the American homeland, whether through cyber attacks or other forms of political interference, as in the preparatory period. in the 2016 presidential elections.
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 leaves much room for skepticism. It won’t take much to provoke further tensions between Moscow and Washington. Even though the United States prefers to focus on China and the Kremlin prefers to put its energies into bolstering its political support at home, the rivalry has developed a life of its own and is highly institutionalized.
But a takeaway from Geneva is that conditional commitment is not a lost cause. It is not for nothing that Biden and Putin both came out of the top in a noticeably optimistic mood. Russia got part of what it wanted: to be treated like a peer by the United States. The Biden administration also benefited from the meeting it originally proposed in April. The US president appeared to stand up to Putin, but also likely secured commitments.
Looking at the big picture, the era of failed resets between Russia and the United States, spanning the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies, is over. What we have now, as Russian foreign policy observer Vladimir Frolov notes, is “respectful hostility.” There is a good chance that this state of affairs will prove to be lasting.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.