What Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin Hope to Achieve from Face-to-Face Meeting

The reaction from Moscow and Washington, D.C. when details were confirmed for the summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin was decidedly muted.

This could be because the pair will have some awkward topics to discuss when they meet in Geneva on June 16, after months of mutual mistrust and barbs.

Calling your counterpart a "killer," as Biden did in March, and Putin's response along the lines of "it takes one to know one," may have done little to swell hearts with hope for constructive dialogue—but that could play into the two leaders' hands.

"Both sides are setting expectations so low that even a summit that goes off without any fireworks and achieves some modest goals will allow both sides to claim some success," Timothy Frye, author of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia, told Newsweek.

There is much to discuss, but so far both leaders have made it clear there is little room for compromise on certain topics. These include the 2020 SolarWinds cyberattack on U.S. government institutions, the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Russia's military involvement in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves
President Vladimir Putin waves during a military parade in Red Square, Moscow, on May 9. He will meet his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden in Geneva next month. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Although the Biden administration considers the Kremlin to be stretching plausible deniability to its limit on those issues, there are areas of common ground.

Within days of entering the Oval Office, the U.S. president agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow, known as New START, which limits strategic warheads and launchers. Nuclear non-proliferation is in both countries' interests.

"That is an area where both sides have indicated there is an appetite for negotiations," said Frye, who is professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University.

"Biden, I think, will try to focus more on strategic stability and arms control negotiations that don't really commit the U.S. or the Russians to more than beginning talks to create some kind of strategic framework.

"Global issues will be another area where they will point to possible areas of cooperation. Their roles in battling the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, on these they can commit to some form of discussions."

President Joe Biden at the White House
President Joe Biden announces sanctions against Russia at the White House on April 15. His summit with Vladimir Putin takes place amid an increase in tensions between the two countries. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

An easy victory for both sides could be an agreement to restore full diplomatic relations, which have been roiled by tit-for-tat sanctions and expulsions from embassies and consulates.

"Stabilizing diplomatic relations could be something more tangible that could be done without much preparation," Frye added.

However, some lawmakers are unsure whether Biden should be meeting Putin at all. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), a member of the upper house's intelligence committee, said in a statement: "We're rewarding Putin with a summit … instead of treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people."

The White House has taken pains to present the summit as simply the way countries do business, regardless of their differences. Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: "We don't only meet with people only when we agree."

In addition, on the heels of NATO and G7 meetings, Biden may be able to contrast his demeanor on June 16 with that of his predecessor Donald Trump, who was dubbed "Putin's poodle" after a 2018 summit in Helsinki.

In any case, Russian voters will see Putin at a high-profile meeting on the world stage—which could be a boon for the president ahead of parliamentary elections in September, after he neutralized the threat posed by Navalny's movement by dispatching him to a prison colony.

"Putin derives legitimacy from the summit himself and this is something he can sell back to a domestic audience," said Sergey Radchenko, a Russia expert and professor of international relations at Cardiff University in the U.K.

"He will appear respected, so he cannot lose with this kind of summit," Radchenko told Newsweek. "He stands in glory, it gives him legitimacy at home and from his perspective, this is a long-awaited opportunity to pose next to the president."

In 1985, Geneva was also the location for the first summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, which Radchenko said provided an interesting contrast with the Biden-Putin meeting.

Although Reagan had talked tough about the "evil empire" two years earlier and relations between Moscow and Washington were frosty, the pair came to an agreement about nuclear non-proliferation.

"This was a start to a very productive relationship," Radchenko said, pointing to the pair's 1986 summit in Reykjavik, the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty a year later and the end of the Cold War.

He doubts next month's summit will be as fruitful as the meeting that took place 36 years ago, when Biden was a Delaware senator and Putin a KGB officer in East Germany.

"Putin is not like Gorbachev," Radchenko said. "The expectation that you would have a positive development towards a detente is simply not there," even if like their predecessors, "nuclear stability is seen as the one issue where both sides are interested in a positive outcome."

Last week, Biden lifted sanctions against some entities involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany, which opponents including Democrats said handed a geopolitical tool to Moscow.

But Biden's move, which received measured praise from the Kremlin, was overshadowed by Moscow's backing for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko's ordering of a plane to be diverted to Minsk so the dissident Roman Protasevich could be arrested.

The effective hijacking outraged the world and complicates talks in Geneva even further. On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested that people should not expect too much.

"It is naive to expect Putin to cross out all of the pages that he has helped to write in the Russo-American relationship—nor will his counterpart be willing to do that," Radchenko said. "It is difficult to see a reset as we have seen in the past."

The graphic below by Statista outlines Putin's years in power.

Correction 05/28/21, 11:00 a.m. ET: This article was updated to clarify that in 1987, the Soviet Union and the U.S. concluded the INF treaty, which is different to the START treaty signed in 1991.

Putin Power Statista
Vladimir Putin's reign in Russia. Statista

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts