On June 11th, 2021, Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, spoke at the discussion of the European Council on Foreign Relations, titled “What to expect from the Putin-Biden summit?”.
“My initial assumption is that we should put this meeting in a very concrete, relevant context of international relations and a bilateral relationship. We should understand that this meeting is not about to reach an agreement or invent how to solve certain problems together and so on. This meeting basically is about how to frame confrontation for the next period.
We are de-facto in the state of Cold War. Of course, using this term, I understand that it is completely wrong because the Cold War of the second half of 20th century was very much different from the current situation. Because both the whole structure of the relationship and actors are hardly comparable to what we had when Gorbachev and Reagan met in Geneva. But when we talk about the atmosphere, I am afraid we have reason to call current stance the new version of the Cold War (in terms of mutual distrust).
Those agreements could be reached, because parts had setup of mutual interests, which could be linked to each other and exchanged according to both parts priorities. Now we don’t have anything to swap. No real agenda between US and Russia. But it is important to have this framework more or less rational understandable rules of behavior between Russia and USA.
During the real Cold War after series of crises of 1950-1960 we did achieve something like such a code of rules: the red lines which had to be taken into account. That was at least some kind of assurance that the confrontation would not go beyond certain level of risks. So, we lost this framework after the Cold War because no one believed that it was needed anymore. Now, unfortunately, we are back to this confrontational environment. We need to be cautious when we confront each other. I think it will be basically the main goal of Putin and Biden in Geneva to frame this new situation. Relationship between Russia and United States after 2014 (and especially after 2016) was not just bad. It was absolutely abnormal and irrational. It was the symbiosis, the merger of domestic and foreign affairs. Russia became the subject in US’ domestic politics, United States have always been part of the Russian domestic politics. And the specificity of Trump Administration contributed very much to make this relationship absolutely destructive. At the beginning we had some expectation about Trump, but in the end of the Trump’s period the most of people were just tired.
As for practical result of this meeting, we are back to old good stuff. If we look at the relationship between Moscow and Washington from the beginning – from 1950s – the strategic stability issue has always been the core of it which is highly understandable. Because as long as Russia and United States have a possibility to physically eliminate each other, that will remain the key factor of relationship. Is it good or bad? – It is another discussion. During the Trump Administration this core was almost destroyed as well. Because Donald Trump himself was totally disinterested in this issue. And his team was, on the contrary, much interested, but they wanted to eliminate this issue and remove it from the agenda.
Now the Biden’s team is back to classical approach. They believe that it is important. They started with the prolongation of the New START agreement. And I think now it is a chance to be back to more or less normal discussion, which will be extremely complicated because we need to invent in a new model of strategic stability in 21st century. Old model has been exhausted due to absolutely new circumstances emerging.
Of course, this discussion will not be easy and will be long, but this meeting is the only way to start to deal with this. If they do, I would personally believe that it was a very successful meeting.
As for the rest, certainly it was important to have exchange. I guess that this exchange will be quite frank. Biden sad that he would be very bland with Putin. Putin used to be bland anyway. It is good in this particular situation. But I cannot imagine any other issues which can bring some kind of mutual understanding, can be implemented into the next steps. So, the topic that is the very popular right now and which is presented as a hypothetical common good for both countries is climate. And I think this issue should be discussed and will be discussed. But I don’t believe that climate issue now might become unifying. Because if we put a sight on it, climate become a new field for competition. Climate issue is not a comprehensive global policy. It is a collection of particular policies of different actors where each actor will try to contribute by increasing its own capacities and advantages. I think it is indeed very important area, but no reason to expect harmony here.
As for a toxic discussion about Russian domestic situation, I am afraid that this is even less starter now than it used to be. Because the current approach of Russia, which is becoming more and more clear, is that “we don’t engage in any discussions of that at all, because it is not your business”.
Certainly, the issues like Belarus and Ukraine will be touched upon but I don’t believe that we can expect any moves there. I think for Russia it is important to understand how far Americans are ready to go in Belarus, for example.
To conclude, I expect that we are back to the more or less classical confrontation. The entourage of this confrontation will be completely different. But the core of the hypothetical dialog will be as before: strategic stability including all new forms of this notion.”
Angela Stent, Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University
Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief, Russia in Global Affairs
Kadri Liik, Senior Policy Fellow, Wider Europe Programme, ECFR
Nicu Popescu, Director, Wider Europe Programme, ECFR