LONDON – Reflecting on his summit with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin overheard the words of a well-known compatriot.
“There is no solid happiness in life, only silent lightnings, a mirage of it on the horizon – cherish them,” Putin said, referring to a quote attributed to Leo Tolstoy, l Russian author. “And it seems to me that in our situation, there can’t be absolute ‘family trust’. But I think the silent flashes of it actually flickered.”
It was a poetic moment for a strong man, best known for his shirtless expressions of macho power – and he wasn’t the only one in a seemingly fatalistic mood.
“Look, it’s not about trust,” Biden said of US-Russian relations. “It’s a matter of personal interest.”
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Ahead of the summit, the two leaders agreed relations were at an all-time low, and afterward Biden appeared to accept that a sudden rapprochement between the two opponents was unlikely.
“This is not a ‘kumbaya’ moment,” he said at a press conference in the sun outside the Swiss villa by the lake where he had just met his Russian counterpart.
“I am not convinced that he will change his behavior,” he said, alluding to hacking, foreign interference in the elections and alleged human rights violations committed under the auspices of Putin’s authoritarian Russia.
After previous failed attempts to normalize Washington-Moscow relations, it was an entirely different message: a message of realism in terms of what could be achieved.
“It wasn’t a summit. It was really just a meeting,” Max Bergmann, senior researcher at the Center for American Progress, told Reuters. “Neither side expected to do much because there is currently not much room for US-Russian cooperation.”
But Wednesday’s pragmatic meeting in Geneva is one that many observers say suits both leaders perfectly for the time being.
Russia is not seen as a top priority for the White House these days, but rather as a “nuisance” that needs to be managed so that it can focus on the real priorities of China, from the Covid-19 and climate change, says Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.
In this sense, Biden delivered an unambiguous message to Putin, saying that the United States will not tolerate alleged Russian crimes, drawing some “red lines” that it should not cross.
“Where I disagreed, I indicated where it was. Where he disagreed, he said,” Biden said. “But it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere.”
And after setting expectations so low, Biden and Putin actually managed to secure a few “deliverables,” including the reinstatement of expelled ambassadors and the resumption of strategic stability talks around nuclear arms control.
“It was about the United States trying to lower the temperature in relations and draw clear red lines with Russia,” Bergmann told Reuters. “So the results were small but potentially useful and important.”
For his part, Putin got what pundits say he wanted: one day billed as a rival superpower – inflating Russia’s diminished geopolitical clout into something akin to its former superpower status. And while deploying a familiar tactic of whataboutism, answering questions about Russia pointing out flaws in the systems of the United States and its allies.
The Kremlin seemed happy at least.
“It was productive in the sense that the two leaders had the opportunity to explain their positions directly,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian radio on Thursday. They were able to “more or less understand where they can cooperate and where, at the moment, they cannot cooperate due to categorical differences in their points of view.”
That pragmatism had been a long way off since 2009, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a fake “reset” button in the hopes that the unraveling links could be fixed.
It was even further removed from President Donald Trump’s chaotic summit with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, in which he met Putin alone and without the help of his collaborators, and then appeared to side with Putin on his own intelligence community about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“We did not expect this time that this summit would result in a settlement between the United States and Russia,” Eyal said. “There would never have been an Obama-style ‘reset’ attempt or family barbecue invitation like George Bush” did when he welcomed Putin to Texas in 2001.
Biden and Putin didn’t have lunch together and there wasn’t a joint post-summit press conference where they could be strewn with awkward questions about their many disagreements.
This contrasted with the first part of Biden’s first trip abroad as president, where he dined with Queen Elizabeth II and met with leaders of the Group of Seven and NATO, as part of his speech. to show the world that “America is back”. like he said.
Biden was never going to afford the same treatment for Putin, whom he recently admitted to being a “killer” and reportedly said in 2011, “I don’t think you have a soul.”
The Russian frontman has shown another side in recent interviews, citing passages from books and other cultural references, something he embraced in his interview with NBC News, which aired this weekend.
But while a little caution might have suited the two men in Geneva, many Western experts worry that there is still no long-term plan to deal with Russia’s disruptive actions at home. or abroad.
“Russia is a villain,” Eyal said. “It’s the only thing they still have to stay relevant.”