In the upcoming U.S.-Russian summit, there is much for Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin to discuss that might bring some clarity to the two nations’ competing world views. It’s unlikely to mirror the meetings between President Reagan and Soviet leaders where Reagan displayed tough determined cordiality; Biden does not have the stature on the world stage to pull that off. The talks to be held in an 18th Century villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland on June 16 have the potential to be a little frigid. With the U.S. president having called Putin a killer and Putin having questioned Biden’s mental faculties, the upside of the talks is that there is only one direction the conversations can go; up.
The summit discussion between the two global competitors tops off a more extensive overseas trip by President Biden. As James Fite explained in his piece written for Liberty Nation: “Over the weekend, Biden will meet with leaders from France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada at the G7 summit.”
But whether discussions with NATO allies and European Union partners will translate into a visage of solidarity of purpose vis-à-vis Putin’s agenda remains to be seen. Thorny geopolitical issues at the great power level are on the table that may not be resolved by a photo op of the U.S. and Europe arm-in-arm.
Two agenda items must be considered the most serious of the topics that will be discussed: renewing the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New START and Russia’s military maneuvers and saber-rattling on Ukraine’s border. President Biden does not enter the discussions on either of these two topics in a particularly strong position.
The Biden administration had the opportunity to hold the line on the New START talks, picking up the discussions where the outgoing President Trump administration left them, but instead chose to not just agree with the Russians and push the negotiations for one year, but to extend the talks gratuitously for five years. To the Kremlin, this move showed the Biden administration to be, if not weak, certainly without a solid administration policy. Add to that removing the U.S. sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 Germany-to-Russia pipeline while stopping the U.S. Keystone XL pipeline at the cost of as many as 20,000 American jobs, and it’s reasonable to suspect the impression Putin might get is that the Biden administration is trying to butter him up before the talks.
In an interview on Fox News, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) characterized lifting the sanctions as “cost of admission” paid in advance by the White House for the opportunity to meet with the Russian president.
Such toadyism does not set a tidy stage for as vital a discussion topic as nuclear arms reduction. Though reducing nuclear warheads and delivery systems is the central theme for discussions on New START in the near term, looking further out the far more crucial issues is getting China into the talks.
Having Russia agree at the negotiations to establish a united U.S.-Russia front would help get China to the table. Cajoling China into serious discussions on nuclear arms reduction will not be easy as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently refused to join the negotiations. Unfortunately, this failure to even discuss nuclear issues is a pattern of behavior even with agreements that Beijing has signed.
Three House Republicans allegedly wrote a letter, cautioning President Biden. Bill Gertz of The Washington Times reported:
“’Despite China being a party to the NPT, it has not only consistently refused to negotiate in good faith but has refused to negotiate at all. We are left to reach no other conclusion that China is in violation of the treaty.’ The lawmakers noted that Article VI of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear weapons states to hold good faith negotiations on arms reductions.”
If the U.S. and Russia could agree to be united in demanding that the CCP join in nuclear talks, that would be a significant win for reducing the threat of a nuclear confrontation. As Tiffany Meier reported for Epoch Times, Beijing predicts that China may achieve its goal of 1,300 nuclear warheads by 2030 – less than a decade away. China must be part of the nuclear threat reduction calculus.
According to Eleanor Albert in The Diplomat, recent cordial meetings between Russia and China took place with the U.S.’s geopolitical influence as the focus of concern. Though nuclear weapons were not the topic of those meetings, the relationship being developed might be leveraged to influence China to be part of the U.S.-Russia discussions.
The second issue on which President Biden should be strong is the persistent and threatening military activities by Russia on the Ukraine border. When the Biden administration had an opportunity to demonstrate that it would not be cowed by Russia, the president’s foreign policy team canceled a planned Freedom of Navigation exercise in the Black Sea. Again, the perception was one of the U.S. backing down.
Being resolute in support of Ukraine and, by extension, NATO and the European Union will go a long way in establishing a solid counter to any adventurism that Putin might have in mind toward Ukraine specifically and other former Soviet Union states as well. A determined and unyielding position condemning Russia’s bellicose behavior threatening Ukraine will also confirm the U.S. support for former Warsaw Pact nations as they stand up to Russia’s bullying.
Furthermore, a strong U.S. foreign policy position supporting Black Sea basin countries like Romania will allay fears of the U.S. using these emerging democracies as pawns in a larger great power rivals’ chess match. In a report for The Washington Examiner, Abraham Mahshie explains how the Black Sea countries look with skepticism on the Biden-Putin talks. He wrote:
“Government ministers in the former Soviet and communist countries along the Black Sea basin are bracing for President Joe Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia next Wednesday in Geneva. But analysts are warning them to keep their expectations low. They hope the American president will stand for democratic ideals and support their security, but regional analysts say they may be pawns in a broader geopolitical chess match between great power rivals.”
Though arguably the most critical, the New START and border issues with Ukraine are not the only concerns that require clear understanding by each country of the other’s position. Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic, the Kremlin’s interference in Libya, and Moscow’s tacit approval – if not sponsorship – of the hacking of U.S. infrastructure computer networks are also important issues for President Biden to raise with his Russian counterpart. Because this is the initial meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin, the leader of the U.S. should remember Will Roger’s old saw: “You never get a second chance to make a good impression.”
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.