In Brief

After Geneva Summit, Daunting Diplomacy Ahead for U.S. and Russia

The first summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin eased some of the tension in the fraught U.S.-Russia relationship. It also laid bare the difficult path ahead to resolving differences on many issues, including cybersecurity and human rights.

What is the most significant takeaway from the summit?

The meeting was a small step forward in injecting the stability and predictability that President Biden seeks into what will remain an adversarial relationship. Both sides agree that the talks were constructive, even though there were no breakthroughs in the long list of contentious issues. The two presidents launched dialogues on strategic stability and cybersecurity but without great confidence that progress is possible. Biden said he will reassess the situation at the end of the year and decide whether to change course. Judging by the length of the talks—between three and four hours—few, if any, issues were discussed in depth. But each president had time to lay out his country’s interests, expectations for relations, and redlines. This respectful airing of differences has at least momentarily released some of the tension that had risen to a dangerous level during the weeks since Biden’s inauguration and opened a window for diplomacy.

What could the strategic stability talks achieve on arms control?

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Shortly after Biden took office, the United States and Russia agreed to extend the New START treaty for five years to give themselves time to negotiate a follow-on arrangement that would take into account the rapidly changing strategic landscape. The bilateral dialogue on strategic stability is charged with addressing this matter.

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However, no one should dismiss the challenges ahead. The strategic nuclear equation is no longer bilateral; China, in particular, increasingly weighs on deliberations, especially for the United States. New capabilities and technologies—cyber and space weapons, high-precision conventional weapons, and nuclear-capable hypersonic glide systems, for example—have scrambled the requirements for strategic stability. Progress in reconciling differing American and Russian views will take time and painstaking negotiations, as was true in the past. But as the summit’s joint statement notes, repeating a formula that President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev articulated in Geneva thirty-six years ago, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The two sides understand that it is imperative to produce results and lessen tensions in this critical field.

What was agreed on regarding the countries’ cybersecurity rifts?

Cybersecurity is one of the most complex, challenging issues on the agenda. The difficulty of attribution in cyberspace; the plethora of nonstate cybercriminals; the rapid development of increasingly sophisticated cyber tools; the uncertainty surrounding the consequences of their use; and the hypersecrecy of countries around their cyber capabilities all militate against the development of a code of conduct in cyberspace. Add to this the total absence of trust between the United States and Russia, as well as Putin’s apparent fondness for hybrid warfare, which relies heavily on cyber tools, and constructive dialogue appears well-nigh impossible.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland. Peter Klaunzer/Keystone/Getty Images

But addressing this matter is unavoidable given the centrality of cyberspace to modern society. Despite the formidable obstacles, there are ways to launch the agreed-upon dialogue that would lead to modest but significant results in the next few years. Biden’s proposal to reach an agreement on elements of critical infrastructure that should be off-limits for cyberattacks, coupled with a vow to retaliate forcefully if Russia launches such attacks, could provide an initial impulse for serious discussion—if he convinces Putin that he is prepared to follow through on his threat. Biden’s approach could even lead Putin to dial back some of the more aggressive Russian operations as the dialogue ramps up.

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The post-summit remarks from both leaders indicate a wide gulf on human rights and political freedoms. Is there a prospect for dialogue on these issues?

This will be a dialogue of the deft. Biden made clear his intention to stand up for democracy, universal rights, and fundamental values around the globe. U.S. officials will continue to focus on Putin’s accelerating campaign against independent media organizations and political rivals, including the most prominent opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, and his countrywide support network. As Putin did during his press conference, Russian diplomats will try to deflect criticism by pointing to what they consider gross violations of human rights in the United States, including what they see as unjust treatment of those who assaulted the U.S. Capitol on January 6. This is a recipe for frustration. Quiet diplomacy will help little when Russian diplomats know the price for even private displays of disloyalty.

Putin has repeatedly stressed that he will not tolerate outside interference in Russia’s domestic affairs—and U.S. officials’ criticism falls into that category. Moreover, as Russia approaches parliamentary elections this fall and a presidential election in 2024, Putin has no incentive to ease up domestically, especially as economic stagnation fuels popular discontent. In this light, Biden rightfully expressed skepticism that his words would change Putin’s behavior. Further diplomatic efforts to raise the issue with unresponsive Russian officials are no more likely to produce the result Biden seeks.

More on:

Russia

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Vladimir Putin

Joe Biden

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

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