On June 16, 2021 President Biden and President Putin held a summit in Geneva, following a week of meetings between Biden and members of NATO and the G7. Before the trip, Biden stated in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that his intention was to strengthen America’s commitment to its allies and build confidence in democracy. Experts were left to speculate about the contents of the meeting between Biden and Putin, as the conversation occurred behind closed doors, followed by press conferences that the two leaders delivered separately. In the leadup to the summit, both leaders expressed optimism for the event and were tolerant towards one another, with Biden calling Putin a “worthy adversary.” The summit follows a tumultuous history between the U.S. and Russia, with the last meeting between the countries occurring in 2018 between Putin and former President Trump. Russian interference in U.S. elections was a primary subject during this conversation, so experts anticipated that cyberattacks would once again be a topic of discussion, as well as Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and strategic stability in terms of nuclear arms control. Putin was expected to promote Russian sovereignty, while Biden stated that he would be firm against Russia’s human rights violations and detention of American citizens. The conversation also followed the Biden administration’s waiving of sanctions against Nord Stream 2 against the wishes of its Eastern and Central European allies, as well as Russia’s defense of Belarus’s recent Ryanair hijacking. 

Though the Biden-Putin summit was highly anticipated, expectations were generally low and there was little hope for a hugely productive outcome. The summit’s success will be measured in America’s long-term response to Russian cyberattacks and human rights violations; the Biden administration must live up to its pledges of stronger retaliation against Russia. Experts also noted a pattern in which newly elected American presidents meet with Soviet and Russian leaders and attempt to reset the relationship between the two states, but relations become unstable once again within a matter of years. So, if the Biden administration fulfills its promises over the next few years, the summit may have been more than simply a resetting of relations between the U.S. and Russia. The process of establishing deterrence is lengthy and the Biden administration must take seriously its commitments made before and during the summit.

The summit was a public relations success for Putin, as it showed that Russia was powerful enough to be deserving of a meeting with such a powerful world leader. On the contrary, Biden did not stand to gain much from the meeting in the short term and some critics felt that it appeared as though Biden was rewarding Putin’s behavior by offering a meeting. Following the summit, Putin deflected questions about Russian cyberattacks against the U.S. and instead mentioned attacks directed at Russia; it is clear that the conversation did not drive Putin to assume any responsibility for Russian interference. He also followed the summit by describing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as in accordance with international law. Further, analysts stated that Putin’s willingness to meet with Biden will be seen by his supporters as diplomatic regardless of his post-summit statements against the U.S. The summit allowed him to appear cooperative with the U.S. and international norms, which may then justify his disruptive and illegal activities. Additionally, elections will be held in Russia in September, so Putin’s domestic image is important and supporters will take away from the summit an image of him as extraordinarily powerful.

Overall, the event’s success must be measured by future American actions against Russian interference, human rights violations, and illegal territorial occupations. The summit was a success for Putin and elevated him to a great status, but did not make Russian actions any more predictable as Biden hoped it might. The meeting may be understood not so much as an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations, but as a pause on worsening relations. The Biden administration must follow the summit with consistent and harsher responses to Russian actions, as Putin did not indicate any behavioral change driven by the summit.

By PAC Policy Intern Caroline Nowak

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Caroline Nowak is a student at Tufts University pursuing International Relations and Russian and East European Studies.

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