Biden, Putin and the Value of Diplomacy | Opinion

President Joe Biden's upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 will be the definition of a hard conversation. It's difficult to pinpoint a dispute between the U.S. and Russia that lends itself to a quick and easy resolution. The mutual sanctions and diplomatic expulsions of the last several months, when combined with the increasing pace of cyberattacks emanating from Russian soil, hovers over the bilateral meeting like a dark cloud ready to rain on everybody's parade.

U.S.-Russia relations have descended to such a low point that some commentators are not especially pleased about the Biden administration's decision to go through with the summit. Nobody, however, has offered a better alternative to the two presidents sitting down at the same table and talking to one another directly about the long list of issues and mutual grievances that are piling up in front of them. Perpetual isolation, economic sanctions without a strategy, military brinksmanship or a combination of all three are no substitute for the type of pragmatic diplomacy U.S. and Russian leaders have engaged in throughout their tumultuous history.

As nauseating as it may be to watch a U.S. president shake hands with an autocrat like Putin (a man who was likely responsible for the poisoning of Russian opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny, among others), the fact is that U.S. presidents don't get to pick their sparring partners. Neither do U.S. presidents have the luxury of tying one hand behind their backs by writing off diplomacy altogether. A tough-minded, rational dialogue with adversaries and competitors is not a reward, but an essential component of preventing problems from spiraling into crises.

None of this is to suggest that diplomacy with somebody as irascible as Vladimir Putin will be smooth sailing. Biden has some experience dealing with Putin and understands he isn't exactly sympathetic to U.S. policy concerns. Russia, for instance, remains highly skeptical of U.S. policy moves in the post-Soviet space, where every U.S. sanction or harsh statement levied against a Russia-backed autocrat is automatically viewed in Moscow as a Washington-backed campaign to constrict Russia's freedom of movement. The Russians remain convinced that the U.S. retains a hidden agenda to destabilize the Kremlin at best and overthrow it at worst, the chief reason why the Russian government is so touchy about international criticism of its crackdown on dissent. This doesn't mean the U.S. should accept Russia's narrative or even temper its concerns about the issue—Biden has made it clear he intends to speak about human rights with Putin during their summit. But it does mean that Biden's protestations about how the Russian government operates domestically, however repugnant it is from the U.S. standpoint, will be angrily waved away by the Kremlin. Putin, always focused on consolidating his authority and neutralizing potential threats to his rule, has no intention of changing his behavior at home—especially if such a change could be seen as a result of pressure from Washington.

The U.S.-Russia relationship today is less a relationship than a grudge match, where Washington and Moscow throw each other's diplomats out of the country, restrict the activity of those who remain and fault one another for every infraction under the sun. The tone in both Washington and Moscow is increasingly adversarial, which makes resuming high-level diplomacy a risky endeavor for both. If there is anything U.S. lawmakers can agree on, it's slapping Russian individuals, entities and energy projects with more sanctions.

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks about the May jobs report on June 4, 2021, at the Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Convention Center. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Given the tension, Biden and Putin's foray into personal diplomacy is unlikely to result in a big deliverable. If Biden expects this meeting to resolve issues like Ukraine, Belarus, or cyber-intrusions, he is setting himself up for a world of disappointment. Putin, too, will be sorely disappointed if he thinks he can push or charm Biden into dropping his emphasis on human rights. The U.S. and Russia simply don't see the world in the same way. Trying to force a convergence will turn the bilateral summit into empty theater.

If results are to be found during the Biden-Putin chat, they will likely happen at the margins and far away from the big, irreconcilable disputes that continue to hobble bilateral ties. One area of potential cooperation, however small it is to some, could be a mutual agreement to wind down their battle over diplomatic staffing, where expulsions from one country force officials from the other to decrease their work load. Russia could agree to allow the U.S. to re-hire third-party nationals in its consulates, a low-cost concession that would speed up the visa process for ordinary Russian citizens who wish to travel to the United States. In addition, Biden and Putin could discuss the prospect of freezing additional diplomatic expulsions in the future, most of which are largely symbolic anyway and tend to do little for either country but deepen the sense of marginalization.

Both men would also be wise to arrive at a general consensus on organizing a new strategic stability dialogue, which Biden himself pledged to pursue during his April 15 speech at the White House. Today, the only arms control agreement that exists between Washington and Moscow is New Start (extended for another five years this spring), which caps the number of strategic warheads and launchers each can deploy at any given time. The U.S. and Russia may no longer be enmeshed in a global Cold War struggle, but the two still possess a combined 11,807 nuclear warheads, 90 percent of the world's total arsenal.

U.S.-Russia relations are in the doldrums. They will likely remain in the doldrums after Biden and Putin end their conversation. But if certain understandings can be reached about the way forward, the summit can go a long way toward introducing stability and predictability in the bilateral relationship—a key U.S. foreign policy goal.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.