Will the two men face each other like boxers before a match? Will Biden look into Putin’s eyes to see if he can find a soul this time? Is Putin going to tear his shirt off? Will there be smiles, nudges and general good nature? Or will there be lectures and jaw clenching?
Granted, most of the meeting will take place behind closed doors, and this is where most of the policy substance will be chopped up, even if no agreement emerges. But that makes the limited time Biden and Putin have in front of the cameras even more important. How each chooses to use these moments will send an important signal, including to their national audience, about how they intend to approach each other in the years to come.
We’ve seen some of this drama in the Biden era before. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, the open session included a shocking amount of verbal wrangling. But when Blinken met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, both sides were cordial and cautious in front of the cameras. Which route will Biden and Putin take?
Stable and predictable?
The Biden administration has opted for the phrase “stable and predictable” to describe what it expects from the Kremlin.
But what does this really mean? And even if Putin is inclined to say that he is looking for the same thing, will he define it the same? After all, for him, “predictable” can predictably include a thorn in America’s side. Also, isn’t that kind of a low bar? After all, who doesn’t want a stable and predictable relationship as long as it benefits them?
Look at a) how often this phrase is used and b) if Biden and his key collaborators take predictable stability seriously, c) if Putin and his team are trying to put their own spin on it, and d) if its use survives. beyond Wednesday’s summit.
Would you like a list of all the issues on which Russia and the United States disagree? Do you have all day?
Seriously, here are a bunch (but not all) of the topics that may be on the table: Russian interference in the US elections; the war in Ukraine; the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny; cybersecurity and cybercrime; the behavior of the Belarusian dictator; humanitarian access to Syria; the future of Afghanistan; the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran; the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; global corruption; Americans detained in Russia; the rise of China; and the restrictions imposed on diplomats by both sides.
At the same time, the Biden administration has highlighted some areas where the two countries could possibly cooperate. These include the fight against climate change and pandemics. They can also include the future development of the Arctic region. There are rumors of potential prisoners being swapped for Americans being held at large. And maybe some ways to mitigate the blows to diplomatic staff resulting from expulsions and sanctions in recent months. Above all, the Biden team is hopeful that Russia will at least be in favor of the idea of more agreements and guarantees regarding the nuclear arsenals of the two countries.
Either way, watch how Putin and Biden discuss the topics afterward and which ones they seem to prioritize. If they talk about the same topics in the same general order, it could be a sign that at least the two agree on prioritization, even if they don’t agree on resolutions. In the end, perhaps what matters most is that both parties agree to keep the lines of communication open, not necessarily to send good wishes to each other but to have a way to avoid misunderstandings, especially with regard to their nuclear positions.
It’s easy to see how the Biden administration will organize the summit once it’s over, and not just because it will use everything from press releases to press conferences to make its point. Pay particular attention to what unnamed senior administration officials disclosed to reporters about the private part of the meeting and their comments on Putin. If there is a general reluctance to talk much about the Russian autocrat, it could mean that progress has been made and that the White House does not want to derail it.
Putin has many ways of conveying his feelings. Not only can he hold his own press conferences, but he also controls a significant part of the Russian media. Watch the ebb and flow of Russian media reports on the US and Biden, especially in the coming days. A spike in negative stories could suggest the summit did little to ease tensions, although it could also mean Putin wants to assure his national audience that he stands up to America and leads Russia. on the right track.
Down the line
It may be years before we really know whether the Biden-Putin summit was a success or even if it was worth it. In the more immediate future, it is worth watching a few things to measure temperature.
First, the ongoing Iran nuclear talks: is Russia suddenly poised to derail the already difficult talks on bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal? It’s unlikely – Moscow is pretty consistent about not wanting Iran to have a nuclear arsenal – but you can’t rule it out with Putin.
Second, what will Russia and China do together in the near future? They have a growing relationship that worries Team Biden, and at times they hype it up to steer Washington. Right after the US-China meeting in Alaska, for example, Chinese officials met Russian Lavrov, who took the opportunity to call for less reliance on the US dollar.
Third, will the United States impose more sanctions on Russia? Some Russian opposition activists are hoping Biden will take on Putin’s corrupt cronies, and Biden has stressed his desire to tackle global corruption, calling it a threat to democracy. Is he bringing the hammer down on Putin’s friends, or is he hesitating in the hope of progress, or at least stability, in US-Russian relations?
In the words of a former US president, Putin recently praised and is probably missing a lot right now, “We’ll see what happens.”