The June 16 summit between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was meant to defuse tensions between the United States and Russia, rather than reset their bilateral relations. Even though the Middle East was not high on the agenda, Biden offered subtle a quid pro quo on foreign policy for Putin to consider. The prospects of success for this proposed exchange look grim and largely depend on the trust-building process between the two leaders.
In his press conference after the summit, Biden seems to have hinted at a deal in which Russia would help the United States in withdrawing from Afghanistan and containing Iran. In return, the United States would facilitate “bringing some stability and economic security or physical security to the people of Syria and Libya.” Biden also spoke about the need for Washington and Moscow to work together toward “strategic stability” on international issues, but it is not clear how this framework might be constructed. Last month, the White House echoed a similar suggestion to manage relations with the Kremlin, noting that the overall objective of the Biden-Putin summit is to “restore predictability and stability” in US-Russian relations. What might this “predictability and stability” look like? And how might it impact the prospects of their cooperation on the Middle East?
The Biden-Putin Summit
Biden requested this anticipated summit, held in the 18th-century Swiss Villa La Grange on Lake Geneva. He gifted Putin a pair of custom aviator sunglasses and a crystal sculpture of an American bison. Putin said the meeting was held “in a constructive spirit” and Biden described the tone as “positive,” but the two leaders did not hold a joint press conference and the US president had a hard time publicly defending the decision to engage his Russian counterpart.
The simple fact of holding the meeting is a win for Putin as it pointed to a US recognition that dealing with him is inevitable.
The simple fact of holding the meeting is a win for Putin as it pointed to a US recognition that dealing with him is inevitable. The American media headlined Biden’s “summit with a killer,” reminding readers of the president’s use of this term in March to describe Putin. For his part, the Russian president reacted on June 11, considering Biden’s remarks as “Hollywood macho” and hoped “there will not be any impulse-based movements” from him.
To be sure, Biden’s relationship with Putin has long been rocky. Back in July 2014 when he was vice president, Biden described his conversation with then Prime Minister Putin in a 2011 meeting when he told him, “I don’t think you have a soul.” Having the meeting on Geneva’s neutral ground reflects a readiness on both sides to at least keep the line of communication open as they both agreed to return their ambassadors after months of verbal tension. This grandstanding from both leaders was expected and motivated by their separate domestic political calculations. Biden told reporters in his press conference after the summit that “there’s a genuine prospect to significantly improve relations between our two countries without us giving up a single, solitary thing based on principle and/or values” and noted that “this is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
The summit’s most significant progress came on bilateral issues, and if some trust was built in the process, this might allow a potential breakthrough on the Middle East in the coming months. In the joint statement after the summit, Biden and Putin agreed on certain overarching objectives: “ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.”
However, there are lingering bilateral issues. Putin is publicly deflecting US criticism of his repression of dissidents by talking about protests in the United States after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the “political demands” of the attackers on Capitol Hill on January 6th. Moreover, Biden told Putin that his administration will “not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilize our democratic elections, and we would respond.” Biden sought to defuse tensions in the cybersphere, noting that both sides agreed “to work on specific understandings about what is off-limits” to potentially reach “a cybersecurity arrangement that begins to bring some order.” It is clear that the American president is engaging his Russian counterpart in a positive manner to deter Russian cyber-attacks on the United States, which he described as actions that are “inconsistent with international norms.” In return, the Biden Administration is offering US recognition of Moscow’s standing in the international system. “The bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by,” Biden said. The question now is whether Putin will hold his fire in the cyber war, and how the Biden Administration will react if that were not the case. Biden acknowledged US inability to deter Russia by telling reporters before the summit that “there’s no guarantee you can change a person’s behavior or the behavior of his country,” noting that “autocrats have enormous power and they don’t have to answer to a public.”
Russia and Transatlantic Relations
The key to deterring Russia has traditionally been to strengthen the US-European alliance. In a Washington Post op-ed before his first trip to Europe as president, Biden wrote to European allies that “we are standing united to address Russia’s challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine, and there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests.”
However, President Biden has been sending mixed signals on his administration’s commitment to deter Russia. European allies were not given a heads-up about his summit with Putin, even though he had been urging them to put up a united transatlantic front against both Moscow and Beijing. Biden has also waived US sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 project that transfers gas from the Russian Arctic under the Baltic Sea to Germany because it is in US national interests and to avoid a transatlantic rift with Germany. However, this move can be characterized as an olive branch to Putin because the chief executive of this project, Matthias Warnig, is a former East German intelligence officer who is close to the Kremlin. During his confirmation hearing in January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had affirmed that he was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion” of Nord Stream 2.
Biden has been tough in the rhetoric on Russia but also flexible and understanding regarding policies that do not antagonize Putin.
US allies in Europe seek to maintain relative neutrality in the United States’ rivalry with China and Russia, and the Biden White House seems to be more understanding than the previous administration of this European concern. The Biden team seems to have decided to mend fences with Russia to keep the focus on deterring China, an approach that is more acceptable for European allies that are not keen to confront Moscow. Indeed, Biden has been tough in the rhetoric on Russia but also flexible and understanding regarding policies that do not antagonize Putin. He told reporters it is premature to say whether Ukraine should join NATO; “it depends on whether they meet the criteria,” he said, subtly hinting at their level of corruption.
Impact on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia
Both bilateral issues and transatlantic relations most probably will dictate what will happen with US-Russian cooperation in the Middle East. What Biden seemed to suggest was a quest for help from Moscow on Afghanistan and Iran, which are high on US priorities, in return for Washington’s facilitation of Russian interests in Syria and Libya, which are high on Moscow’s.
On Afghanistan, the Biden Administration is eyeing a smooth US withdrawal this year and hoping that Russia will not complicate it or raise the costs involved in this strategic decision. If the intra-Afghan talks fail to produce a lasting solution, it is possible that Moscow could expand its role and fill the power vacuum left by Washington while continuing to have ties with the Taliban. While both the United States and Russia share a common interest of a stable Afghanistan that does not include a resurgence of the Taliban, there are no guarantees that Russia will facilitate the situation for the United States post withdrawal.
What Biden seemed to suggest was a quest for help from Moscow on Afghanistan and Iran, which are high on US priorities, in return for Washington’s facilitation of Russian interests in Syria and Libya, which are high on Moscow’s.
On Libya, Moscow continues to tacitly support the country’s eastern-based commander, Khalifa Haftar, although it has endorsed the latest Geneva agreement that resulted in the election of a new Presidential Council and the appointment of a new prime minister, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah. Moscow is also preparing to reopen its embassy in Tripoli and consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. Where Russia may need to be careful is in its support of Haftar, who recently challenged the authority of the Presidential Council and government and took control of a border crossing with Algeria, a move that prompted a counter-move by Tripoli—to order all unauthorized military activities in the country to cease without its direct permission. To be sure, there is room for US-Russian cooperation in Libya that could preserve both countries’ interests and help safeguard peace and security in the southern Mediterranean.
Another area where the two sides share interests is Iran; both agree that Tehran should not have a nuclear weapon, but they may differ on the tactics. The Biden Administration would need Moscow’s help to persuade Tehran to restore the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, within reasonable preconditions, but there is little the Kremlin could do on this issue. Moreover, there were recent indications by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that Russia sought to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal. Russia continues to distance itself from Iran and its regional role. In an NBC interview, Putin dismissed as “nonsense” and “fake news” a Washington Post report that Russia plans to offer Iran an advanced satellite system that could enable it to potentially target US troops in Iraq. One of the most important factors that drove Washington’s cooperation with Moscow in Syria has been their joint interest in restraining Iran.
What Biden wants from Putin on Syria includes ensuring deconfliction in order to maintain a stable environment for US military operations, allow humanitarian aid to Idlib, and embark on a conflict resolution process to ultimately reach a compromise. As expected, Putin remained vague in the summit on committing to renew the UN authorization that expires on July 10 and allows the passage of humanitarian aid to Idlib. The United States and its allies are pushing to expand this humanitarian corridor that is crucial for the residents of Idlib while Russian authorities have cast doubts about the relevance and legitimacy of this crossing. A US official noted that the message was clear to Putin that this humanitarian passage “was of significant importance for us if there was going to be any further cooperation on Syria,” hence linking any US flexibility there with the precondition of allowing aid to Idlib. Putin might drag this issue through the July 10 deadline to get further concessions from both Washington and Ankara.
The Biden Administration has been mute on the Gulf rapprochement with the Assad regime, and the Kremlin wants to make sure the White House will not halt this process as the Trump Administration did in 2018. Moreover, there are no indications that the Biden Administration is willing to restore a cooperation framework that is similar to the one between former US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who held frequent talks but failed to reach a resolution of the Syrian conflict. Biden and Putin seemed to agree in the summit to avoid collision in Syria rather than attempt to resolve the conflict. The Biden Administration is not likely to withdraw from Syria in the foreseeable future, nor will it recognize Assad; hence there is little breakthrough expected on the horizon. Biden said that Putin asked him why “it was important to continue to have problems with the President of Syria” and his answer was “because he’s in violation of an international norm. It’s called a Chemical Weapons Treaty. Can’t be trusted.” However, the Biden Administration’s flexibility toward Russia has extended to Syria: the US Treasury has issued exemptions so that the Syrian regime is able to face the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has lifted sanctions on two companies affiliated with Syrian businessman Samer Foz, who is close to the Assad regime.
Biden came to Putin with a list of demands linked to bilateral relations and an offer to cooperate, when possible, on foreign policy issues. There are no indications the Kremlin will cease activities like cyber-attacks and repression of dissidents or even recognize that they exist, which means the Biden Administration will have to decide whether to impose punitive measures that might further escalate tensions in the relationship. The repercussions will primarily impact the Middle East. Both the United States and Russia have common interests in Iran and Syria, but their continuing rivalry and lack of trust might prevent effective cooperation.
Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here