A reset of the Russian-American relationship? A start of a new Cold War? An unexpected bromance? Nothing much at all? Did the 2021 Geneva Summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin matter in the least?
For Geneva the summit was a big thing: enhanced security measures, a brief boost for the local hospitality sector, some free publicity from journalists basking in the June sunshine by Lake Geneva. After over a year of coronavirus-imposed cancellations, the Biden-Putin Summit of 16 June 2021 was an unexpected but largely welcome mega-event that helped boost Geneva’s image as the international city of peace.
For the rest of the world, however, the location is beside the point. What matters is substance – what, if any, agreements are reached between the leaders once they sit down with a legion of advisers behind closed doors? Equally important is appearance, the body language of the two leaders. Did they seem hostile towards each other? Did they smile or frown? From the first handshake at the entrance to Villa Grange, every move was analysed in microscopic detail by journalists hungry for some “breaking news”.
In one sense this was bound to end in disappointment. After all, the issues, challenges and prospects on Biden and Putin’s agenda had been analysed in endless detail in the weeks and days leading to 16 June. At the end of the day there were no great surprises. The two presidents, basically, agreed that they disagreed on many issues.
The laundry list of controversial issues ranged from Russian aggressive behaviour vis-a-vis Ukraine (including its 2014 annexation of Crimea) and subsequent economic sanctions, disregard for human rights and political freedoms, meddling in other countries’ internal politics, frequent cyberattacks emanating from Russian soil, the future of Afghanistan and Syria. Nothing concrete was agreed on any of these points.
This should come as no surprise. Both sides had worked hard to downgrade expectations. In Geneva, Biden and Putin were careful to follow a pre-set script. Neither wanted to be seen as ‘losing’ face, either by agreeing to something that would make them look ‘weak’ or letting the other side ‘get away’ with offensive statements without a counterpunch. The press conferences – held individually rather than jointly – reflected this. Putin deflected any criticism of Russian behaviour; Biden reiterated that he had made clear that actions – future cyberattacks, the sudden death of Alexander Navalny (the jailed leader of Russian opposition) – would have consequences.
Still, the summit offered some hope.
After several months of absence, the respective ambassadors will return to their posts in Moscow and Washington. A bilateral dialogue to discuss means of reducing the risks of unintentional conflicts and continue the on-and-off process of reducing the danger of nuclear war is set to commence in coming months.
While the prospect of Russian-American cooperation is not bright, a further deterioration of the relationship is even less likely.
In short, there was no reset in Geneva. But one should not read this outcome as a reversal. The fact that a summit took place in Geneva does suggest that there is a continued recognition, in Washington and `Moscow, that their relationship cannot be based purely on negative soundbites. It gives hope, however slim, that agreements, while not inevitable, are at least possible.
The winner of the 2021 Geneva Summit was neither Biden nor Putin, the United States or Russia. The winner was something more crucial: the old-fashioned art of diplomacy.