Globe, the Graduate Institute Review
18 October 2021


Jussi Hanhimäki, Professor of International History and Politics, looks at Russian-American relations through the lens of the 2021 Geneva Summit. 

It may seem like the June 2021 Geneva Summit was a very long time ago, but at least the leaders had met. Some form of diplomacy, including the return of the respective ambassadors to Moscow and Washington as well as discussions about nuclear weapons, soon followed. Russian-American relations were on track.  

At the time, Joe Biden’s claim that “America is back” had appeared true enough. Prior to meeting Putin in Geneva, the American president had colluded with G7 leaders in Cornwall, as well as NATO and EU principals in Brussels.

After four years of Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric, further exacerbated by the COVID pandemic in 2020, “the West” appeared united once again. The handshake in Geneva seemed to seal this return to a kind of normalcy with the United States’ president lecturing his Russian counterpart about the rules of international relations.

A few months later, things may seem very different. Joe Biden’s ability to reclaim the United States’ traditional leadership role in international affairs is seriously in doubt. There has been no obvious progress in solving many of the big controversies that were on the agenda in Geneva. Worst of all, from the perspective of the Biden administration’s international credibility, the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan.  

The scenes at Kabul airport – reminding many of the 1975 evacuation of Saigon – were deeply humiliating for the United States. Two decades of US-led nation-building ended in a desperate scramble to evacuate foreign and Afghan nationals that might fall prey to the new regime.

Meanwhile Russia (and China) kept its embassy operational and appeared poised to benefit.

The end of American (and Western) involvement in Afghanistan was demeaning. But for the Russian-American relationship, the impact is unlikely to be particularly significant. In fact, the Taliban victory is unlikely to change the fundamental direction of Russian foreign policy.

Moscow has its own complicated history with Afghanistan that makes this no grand geopolitical opportunity. While Putin may be delighted to see the United States (and NATO) humiliated, the terrorist strikes near Kabul airport in late August were a portent of chaotic times to come at Russia’s doorstep.

In the end, the Russian-American relationship has never been one of mutual trust and cooperation, but neither are we on the cusp of a new Cold War.

The tragic events in Afghanistan will do little to change the fundamental pattern of a relationship between Moscow and Washington that continues to be marked by a significant asymmetry in economic power and persistent disagreements across a host of seemingly unresolvable issues.

The two countries that possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal are destined to maintain an uneasy coexistence for the foreseeable future.

This article was published in Globe #28.