MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Geneva on Wednesday with nothing to lose and flew home with almost everything he wanted — a summit that showcased his status as leader of one of the world's two biggest nuclear powers and acknowledged that, without him, global security goes nowhere.
After Wednesday’s summit, the tone changed. Putin called Biden “constructive” and “levelheaded” and indicated Russia’s willingness to engage on nuclear arms limitation, cybersecurity and several other areas.
The shift was reflected in pro-Kremlin media: Gone was the usual portrait of the U.S. president as a doddery threat to global stability. Instead he was the leader of a great power meeting with another leader of a great power.
The businesslike tone of the Geneva summit contrasted with Putin’s dominance at the Helsinki summit in 2018, when the Russian leader came out on top as President Donald Trump sided with him against U.S. intelligence agencies on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump had met with Putin without officials, just an interpreter. Ultimately, Putin’s high hopes for Trump delivered little for Moscow, while Biden’s approach may at least stabilize relations.
What did Putin get from the summit?
Respect, for starters. Putin self-view — as a world leader positioning Russia as key to global security — is central to his sense of status and legacy.
“Our one-on-one conversation took almost two hours. It’s not every world leader that gets this amount of attention,” Putin said at a post-summit news conference.
Putin’s shift on Biden is likely to be reflected — at least for now — in reporting about Biden by Russian media that echoes the Kremlin line.
Despite a packed European tour schedule, Biden “looked fresh” and was “fully aware of the material” during two ours of talks, Putin said.
“Biden is a professional. One should be very observant when working with him in order not to miss anything. He misses nothing, I can assure you,” he added.
Vladimir Vasilyev, an analyst at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, said Biden’s reproaches to Putin seemed mild, like the “advice of a good-hearted uncle” who is “issuing warnings with the best intentions.”
Gennady Gudkov, a Russian politician and Putin critic, was surprised by Putin’s unusually positive tone about Biden.
“I don’t hear our president sounding triumphant,” he said. “Apparently, Biden turned out not to be a wimp after all.”
But Russian media pointed out that Putin took a range of tough questions from U.S. and British journalists, while Biden limited his questions to only a short list of American journalists.
Did the summit reset Moscow-Washington relations?
Not so much. For Moscow, there can be no reset while sanctions remain, but the talks at least offered some clarity in mutual expectations.
The polite, businesslike tone of the summit offered what Putin called “glimmers of confidence and hope.”
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the summit unblocked an impasse in relations and started dialogue about strategic arms security and cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the leaders acknowledged each other’s red lines, he said. For Moscow, that is Ukraine’s goal of admission into NATO; for Washington, it’s dangerous cyberattacks such as the ransomware hits that U.S. authorities say were launched by Russian hackers.
“I think Putin got all that he had come for,” Trenin said. “So, mission accomplished. Of course, the expectations bar had been originally and rightly set rather low.”
Trenin said Putin’s reaction to Biden’s criticism of Russia’s repression of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was “Okay, you do your talk, if you must, and I’ll do my walk.”
Did Biden and Putin at least stop the slide toward a new cold war?
Maybe. Both leaders said that only time will tell whether the downward spiral can be stopped.
Biden said Russia’s approach to talks in coming months will show whether it is really willing to engage. Putin warned that if new U.S. sanctions are placed on Russia, it would mark a lost opportunity.
Russia’s pro-Kremlin television was surprisingly upbeat, emphasizing the “pragmatic dialogue” of two leaders “speaking a common language” while underscoring that there was no reset. NTV reported that “the world has become a safer place” because of the summit.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the summit was “rather positive” and that it enabled the two leaders to understand “where interaction is possible and where there can be no interaction for now due to categorical disagreements.”
Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, said the summit was a “step toward detente” that offered hope for future dialogue.
Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, said the summit would not result in a major improvement in relations because of “the systemic nature of the confrontation.”
Speaking at a meeting organized by the Valdai Discussion Club, he said the aim was “to stabilize the U.S.-Russia confrontation, put an end to its unhealthy nature and unmanageable course.” This would mean that, even as enemies, both would avoid crossing each other’s red lines and triggering a crisis.
A gulf remains between Washington and Moscow. But the summit results — the mutual return of ambassadors and the agreement to discuss nuclear arms and cybersecurity — seem as good as anyone expected from the Russian side.
What happens next?
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told Russia’s Kommersant newspaper that talks about strategic arms limitations could start within weeks. He viewed the joint summit statement that there could be no winners in a nuclear war as “a significant achievement” with Moscow increasingly wary of Washington's intentions in recent years.
“Any games around this, ambiguities, pumping up the discourse, it is all not just harmful, but dangerous. Now we have a point of reference.” As a result, he said, “we experienced a greater sense of inner certainty.”
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, head of R. Politik, an independent political analysis group, said Putin’s goal was to force the United States into a set of rules on international cybersecurity. Putin’s leverage was the implicit threat of maximizing chaos if nothing is done, she added.
“But if tomorrow, say, the U.S. and Russia agree not to attack critical infrastructure with a cyberweapon, can Putin fully guarantee that Russia will fulfill its obligations?” she wrote in an analysis, warning that cyberhackers and spoilers were difficult to control.
Writing in Izvestia newspaper, Konstantin Kosachev, the deputy speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, blamed Washington for the sinking relationship and said it would take American political will to change that.
But Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the independent Moscow-based Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies, wrote on Facebook that relations depended on Putin’s willingness to avoid hostility and destabilization.
“Biden made his conciliatory move, which I would not condemn. Now it is time for Vladimir Putin to do the same. Whether the Russian president is ready to live in a world where his imaginary rival is not perceived as an enemy, we will soon see.”