A moment of hope for the future of US-Russia relations.
Earlier today, President Joe Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, for a highly anticipated bi-lateral summit on US-Russia relations. According to both the US and Russian press conferences the talks were constructive and positive, touching upon a wide range of topics. Key issues featured in the discussions were the restoration of diplomatic relations, strategic stability, cybersecurity, and the Ukraine crisis, among other areas of possible cooperation.
A significant outcome of the summit was a mutual commitment towards returning Russian and US diplomats to their respective embassies in Washington and Moscow. In recent years, both governments have moved to expel diplomats and representatives as a result of deteriorating relations. As recently as April 2021, Biden announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats over alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election, prompting Moscow to expel 10 US diplomats. The decision to return to normalcy in bi-lateral diplomatic representation is a consequential step towards improving overall US-Russia relations and dialogue.
As the two countries with the largest number of nuclear weapons, strategic stability and arms control have always been at the forefront of US-Russia relations. Coming out of the summit, President Putin told the press that there would soon be consultations on strategic stability at the inter-agency level, alongside an extension of the START treaty until 2026. According to a joint statement released on the Kremlin’s official website immediately after the summit, “Russia and the United States will soon launch a comprehensive bilateral dialogue on strategic stability, which will be substantive and energetic.”
During his press conference, President Putin declared his intention to work more closely with the US in the realm of cybersecurity, even as the US has not responded to previous cybercrime-related inquiries from Russia. Meanwhile, President Biden told reporters that he laid out a list of 16 facilities designated as critical infrastructure that should be considered off-limit to hostile cyber-activities, whilst also informing Putin of America’s “significant cyber-capabilities.” Still, Biden conveyed his desire to task US experts with coordination and communication when it comes to combatting cybercrime.
In May 2021, the Colonial Pipeline was subject to a high-profile ransomware attack that led to gasoline chain-of-supply issues across the US east coast. Soon after, the meat supplier JBS suffered a similar attack, forcing the company to pay $11 million in ransom money. As a result, cybercrime has entered the public conscience and become a key issue in US politics. Russia and the US have a mutual interest in identifying and prosecuting cybercriminals, and a partnership in this area could lead to further cooperation down the road.
Leading up to the June 16th Biden-Putin meeting, analysts predicted the ongoing Ukraine crisis to be a notable point of contention. Following a major summit of Trans-Atlantic leaders in Brussels on June 14th, NATO released a communique that re-affirmed its commitment to offering a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine, designed to eventually see Ukraine join the alliance.
According to President Putin, Ukrainian membership in NATO was broached but not discussed in great detail during the Geneva summit. Nevertheless, Putin claimed to have reached an agreement with Biden on implementing the Minsk and Minsk II protocols to resolve the conflict in the Donbas, which would require Kiev to grant local self-governance status to Donetsk and Luhansk as well as adopt a more decentralized constitution, among other stipulations.
When asked about his general impression of the summit, President Putin stated it was “substantive, concrete” and conducted in an atmosphere of achieving results. These sentiments were echoed by President Biden who called the talks “good, positive” and “not hyperbolic”. Biden said further that he achieved the outcomes he set out with, which were to identify areas of mutual interest, clearly communicate perspectives, and define the values of both countries.
Less constructive was the media's coverage of the summit. During the Russian press conference, American journalists accused President Putin of carrying out cyberattacks against the US and suppressing free press in Russia. Notably, no Russian journalists were permitted to ask questions during Biden’s press conference, while Putin engaged with CNN, NBC, ABC, and other reporters from US mainstream media.
Despite the latent Russophobia in some portrayals of the Geneva summit, Presidents Biden and Putin appear to have taken meaningful steps towards rehabilitating US-Russia dialogue, even if concrete collaboration still needs to be hammered out.
Julian Fisher is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).