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Biden’s climate summit offers rare ‘breathing space’ with Putin amid growing rifts

Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves the stage after delivering his annual address to the Federal Assembly at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow on April 21. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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MOSCOW — The stress points keep piling up between President Biden and Vladimir Putin.

Biden agreed that the Russian president is a "killer," the United States leveled more sanctions, diplomats have been expelled on both sides and the White House has warned Russia about its treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

But one apparent patch of common ground for dialogue — albeit while thousands of miles apart via video link — is the threat of climate change.

Putin has agreed to take part in a Biden-hosted virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on Thursday with others from around the world, including China’s Xi Jinping. The conference is viewed as Biden putting his personal stamp on the U.S. return to global climate initiatives after the Trump administration’s withdrawal.

The event will provide a low-risk arena for cooperation — and a common foe — for the White House and the Kremlin.

In his annual address to the Russian government on Wednesday, Putin set a goal of reducing Russia’s greenhouse emissions below European Union levels in the next 30 years. He also said he will increase fines for industrial polluters.

“If you profited from nature, clean up after yourself,” Putin said, referencing massive toxic spills in the Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk regions of Siberia last year.

Heather Conley, head of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the climate summit will provide Washington and Moscow “with a small amount of breathing space to keep channels open on a different topic” and that “both sides are signaling that they want to preserve this space.”

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But one former State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said the “timing couldn’t be worse” for Putin’s participation in the climate summit.

Navalny, who has been on a hunger strike,“could die at any moment,” according to his allies, and the White House has warned of “consequences” for the Kremlin if that happens. The United States also has been critical of Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border, calling its actions “provocative.”

“If I were on the inside advising the Biden administration, I would not opt to hold a summit with President Putin under those circumstances,” the former official said, calling it a “bad message.”

“I mean, I understand very well the policy and strategic logic behind trying to compartmentalize and do things in different tracks,” the former official said. “But unfortunately, the real world is a little bit messier.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has played down the significance of Putin taking part in the summit.

Asked whether Putin’s speech at the event is a chance for Putin to normalize relations with the West, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “There is no such thing as ‘relations with the West.’ ”

“This is a multilateral event devoted to climate and ecology, which our country views as important priorities. This is why the president has decided, upon receiving the full information, to make a speech there,” Peskov said.

The Kremlin has said Putin will address “Russia’s approaches in the contest of forging broad international cooperation aimed at overcoming the negative effects of global climate change.”

Russia, however, has moved quickly to seek strategic advantage on a warming planet.

Russia’s vast Arctic frontier is among the fastest-warming regions. The Kremlin looks to the retreat of sea ice as openings for shipping routes of liquefied natural gas and other commodities. At the same time, thawing permafrost is a threat to infrastructure in Russia’s Far North.

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“Climate is an area where Russia has interests and doesn’t want to be left out of the global conversation,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “And this summit did not require personal contact between Putin and Biden.”

Trenin said the one-on-one in-person summit that Biden suggested in a recent phone conversation with Putin “is trickier.”

The few other areas of potential cooperation — such as reviving the Open Skies Treaty, the international pact allowing observation flights over military facilities — do not require a meeting between presidents and can be largely handled through their foreign ministers.

“The Russians these days do not receive the offer of an American summit as some kind of an award,” Trenin said. “Periodically, it would be very important for the national security advisers to stay in touch. It would be important for the military chiefs to be always ready to talk to each other about the latest developments and various potential incidents. But fundamentally, a new model of the relationship will take some time to emerge.”

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