Biden-Putin: a much needed summit

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

The US-Russian relationship is at a low point. Both sides have said that much lately. Pre-summit statements are sometimes part of the expectations game: any agreement, on any issue, might be a diplomatic success to claim. But the last few weeks and days have offered no reason to believe that this meeting will in fact produce a thaw in the frosty relationship between Washington and Moscow.

Donald Trump is gone, at least from the Oval Office. Joe Biden called for it early in his campaign; now as president, he is building an alliance of democracies with America’s allies.

Containing China is the end game here, not Russia—a country that is no match for the US, China or Europe on the new global power scene. Putin has for sure geopolitical and geostrategic aims of its own. But Russia insidiously inserts itself by brazenly using disruption and nuisance, meddling in the American, French or British elections, provoking the West when invading Crimea, or threatening Ukraine.  

At home, human rights violations have reached new heights, with the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and the open support of the autocratic regime of Aleksander Lukashenko in Belarus.

Digital allows Putin to disrupt on the cheap, and to use plausible deniability at the proliferation of actors involved in the nefarious game. But together, the US and Russia still possess 90% of an aging nuclear weapons stockpile and that alone is enough to warrant restarting a dialogue, face-to-face.  This summit offers both men and their teams a way to better gauge how to manage their profound differences.

The global power map couldn’t be more different than thirty-five years after the November 19, 1985 meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in this city. But what hasn’t changed is the necessity to understand each side’s intentions and positions. in other words, to engage in the practice of diplomacy.  This was Margaret Thatcher then, telling the BBC in 1984: “We both believe in our own political systems. He firmly believes in his; I firmly believe in mine. We are never going to change one another. So that is not in doubt (…)  And secondly, I think we both believe that (our disarmament talks) are the more likely to succeed if we can build up confidence in one another and trust in one another about each other's approach.”

And here is Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, on June 7, before the White House press: “There is never any substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, particularly for complex relationships, but with Putin this is exponentially the case.  He has a highly personalized style of decision-making and so it is important for President Biden to be able to sit down with him face-to-face, to be clear about where we are, to understand where he is, to try to manage our differences. (…) So, what we need to think about this summit as doing is fundamentally giving us an opportunity to communicate from our president to their president what American intentions and capabilities are and to hearing the same from their side.  That has value in and of itself.”

The 1985 meeting was all about assessing who the new Soviet leader was, if he could be trusted, if, as Thatcher said in the same interview, we could do “business with him.” Perestroika and glasnost were about engaging with the West. Putin is an old summit hand, having succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 2000.  He may still be in office until 2036, thanks to a constitutional law he helped pass and signed early this year.  From the magnificent grounds of the Villa La Grange, across the lake, he will be looking at Geneva’s Quartier des Nations, the UN at its center, the very embodiment of a body of values he actually dismisses as obsolete. “The liberal order,” he told the FT in 2019 on the eve of a G20 summit in Osaka, “has outlived its usefulness.”

MAD, still.

Security issues were at the center of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting. They will be again during tomorrow’s discussions between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. With a major difference. Security has become cybersecurity. During the cold war and until its very end, the MAD doctrine, the “mutual assured destruction” that a nuclear strike by one country followed by the retaliatory attack by the other one, possibly in a suicidal cycle, would have inflicted unfathomable destruction to the Soviet-Union or to the US served as the best deterrent to using the nuclear weapon.

Cyber ushers in the same logic, and keeps the same acronym, albeit slightly amended: mutual assured disruption. The consequences of a strategic cyberattack would be different. The world would not have to contemplate, once again, the abominable aftermath of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Yet, the recent spate of high-profile ransomware attacks allegedly conducted by Russian-based hacking gangs, such as the one against US fuel carrier Colonial Pipeline, give a pretty good sense of the damages and consequences that a massive attack on critical infrastructure could lead to. They range from a large amount of casualties if hospitals and medical facilities were to be targeted, to rapid social unrest following shortages of essential goods. Economies could in fact easily be fatally crippled and brought to a halt with air traffic brought to a standstill.

There is a growing consensus between the US and its allies that the cyber domain is highly unpredictable and could lead to rapid escalation. With the political rules still largely absent, any attempt to build shared understandings of acceptable norms and necessary limits should be saluted. Don’t expect a breakthrough, most experts say. It will be a long and arduous game and maybe it’ll get worse before it gets safer. But it will, nevertheless and notwithstanding everything else, be progress.