After a summit between the leaders of two superpowers, the first obligatory question is: which of the two won this round? This time, however, there was an answer that could be given before the question could even be asked. The very fact that the summit at Villa Lagrange took place is a big point in favor of Vladimir Putin, who was justified in pointing out, in the press conference after the talks, that his face-to-face conversation with Joe Biden had lasted almost two hours, and such attention by the latter was not granted to just any world leader.
Such treatment would hardly be reserved for a “killer”—as Biden had called him before—the protagonist of the story of an authoritarian regime—sanctions on Russia have been in place since 2014—that is stifling for the Russians and dangerous for neighboring countries and for the world.
On the other hand, Biden is an “experienced statesman,” a compliment that came from the Russian president. Which has an obvious subtext. Unlike his predecessor, all gut instinct and improvisation, the current U.S. president has a notable and long-running familiarity with international politics. He has been a longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, served as Obama’s vice president with wide-ranging authority on international policy, and has built a dense network of relationships everywhere in the world. Biden knows how to be tough when he’s pushing the buttons of propaganda, which has some weight in international relations but is not the decisive factor, and, more importantly, he knows how to be realistic as a negotiator. An old-school politician.
At the end of the day, as they say in America, what mattered was to reopen a channel of direct dialogue between the Oval Office and the Kremlin. And this result was achieved. Even in the coldest moments of the Cold War, the line between Washington and Moscow was always operational, and Biden can now interact directly with his Russian counterpart. The “killer” is now a leader who can neither be ignored nor treated as the head of a former superpower, which deserves only to be subjected to permanent attrition measures.
This doesn’t mean, however, that there is any change with respect to the various issues that have been prominent over the last decade, and which Biden, with Tony Blinken and his team, put on the table at the Geneva negotiations: human rights, with the Navalny case in the foreground, the Ukrainian question, cybersecurity and the related American accusations of interference in internal U.S. affairs. And then, there were the negotiations on nuclear weapons and the climate, topics where it is possible to find agreement. The United States and Russia will undertake an integrated bilateral dialogue on strategic stability in the near future, which will be robust, reads a joint statement by Biden and Putin. It is to be expected that tensions will remain, but within a different context, in which the war of words will coexist with direct channels of communication between the two presidents. “A new Cold War [is] clearly not in anybody’s interest,” and “there is a genuine prospect to significantly improve relations,” said the U.S. president after the meeting.
Biden’s realism is dictated by several considerations. The situation in Russia, despite sanctions and growing Western ostracism, is holding up well overall. Thanks in part to the skillful central bank governor, Elvira Nabiullina, there is some fiscal stability, and the economy could be back in shape in a couple of years, even in the face of the pandemic crisis and falling oil prices. Russian resilience, coupled with its undeniable and enormous geostrategic weight, is leading Biden to change pace, with the goal of countering the establishment of a fearsome adversary front, consisting of Russia, China and Iran.
In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski warned that “the most dangerous scenario” that could be envisioned was that of China becoming ever closer to Russia and Iran, what he defined as an anti-hegemonic coalition against the Western democracies. Today, that scenario is coming true, and this is Washington’s nightmare. In the game of dominos that is redefining the new world order—after the Trump presidency—the preoccupation of the Biden administration is therefore to weaken all the connections that Beijing is building to obtain the role of primary superpower, promoting first of all alliances with the main geopolitical actors that are already on Washington’s rolodex.
Biden’s European tour, with the final stop in Geneva, was first and foremost for this purpose: to bring America back to the center, to give once again a role to the front of the allied countries, after the Republican-led four-year period that did the opposite, and to act against the Russia-China-Iran axis, to prevent its consolidation.
The objective, as mentioned, was the downsizing of the growing Chinese power. But, in reality, Biden’s main objective is domestic politics, which will occupy the bulk of the presidential agenda between now and 2022, the next year with mid-term elections. A loss of either or both branches of Congress by the Democratic Party would greatly weaken Biden and his programs, not to mention that Biden is likely to be a one-term president.
Biden’s priority is therefore to reset foreign policy so that he can focus maximum attention on domestic policy. Is his European tour yielding results in that direction? The signs on the surface would suggest so. But for now, they are only a facade, and we will not know more until the interests of partners and interlocutors will become clear, in terms of whether they will really support Biden’s agenda or not. Today, this is not yet clear—neither among the European allies, nor from the Kremlin.
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