Biden and Putin Should Save Their Breath

The last time Geneva served as the venue for a U.S.-Russia summit — in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev, still fresh in his role as Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, met with Ronald Reagan — the U.S. president remarked that “people didn’t get into trouble when they talked to each other but rather when they talked about each other.” That’s a good explanation — though not the only one — for why this week’s Geneva summit, to take place between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin on June 16, cannot and will not succeed even by the low standards that observers have set for it. Indeed, the White House line that Biden needs to meet with Putin because of his personalized decision-making style makes little sense: Their relationship is one that personal contact can only make worse.

Biden and Putin have only had one long one-on-one meeting, on March 10, 2011. It was a flop. Biden described it in some detail in his 2017 book, “Promise Me, Dad.” The then-vice president had flown to Moscow to persuade Putin that a planned expansion of the U.S. anti-missile defense system to eastern Europe was not a hostile move against Russia. Putin made his disbelief plain and baited Biden when the conversation touched upon Russia’s annexation of parts of Georgia.  Biden said he was regularly on the phone with Georgia’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to urge him to refrain from provocative action. “We know exactly what you say to Mr. Saakashvili on the phone,” Putin replied.

The conversation ended with then-Prime Minister Putin inviting Biden to admire the splendor of his office and Biden responded, “It’s amazing what capitalism will do, isn’t it?” The barb likely missed the mark: Putin had never positioned himself as an enemy of capitalism, and top officials’ offices were just as opulent under the Communists. So Biden, perhaps upset by the failure of his mission, took a parting shot with a riff on George W. Bush’s 2001 claim to have looked Putin in the eye and gotten “a sense of his soul”:  

“Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes,” I told him, smiling. “I don’t think you have a soul.” He looked at me for a second and smiled back. “We understand each other,” he said. And we did.

Biden, in other words, didn’t care if he insulted Putin, known to be a devout Orthodox Christian. Putin replied with what could only be interpreted as a declaration of hostility. Since that glacial moment, the two men have talked more about than to one another. Biden has occasionally repeated his claim regarding Putin’s soul, or absence thereof, and more recently added that he considered Putin a “killer” and threatened to make him pay for allegedly interfering in U.S. elections. ‘He who said it did it,” Putin retorted, adding that the U.S. had no alternative but to deal with Russia on Russia’s terms.

Personal chemistry is not everything in leaders’ relations, of course. Putin appeared to like Donald Trump, and their one big meeting in Helsinki in 2018 failed to achieve anything, anyway. But Putin and Biden’s transparent mutual dislike would have hindered progress even if progress were written into their briefing memos.  Biden’s idea of political professionalism has a lot to do with likability and the gift of gab; Putin’s is all about cold calculation. Biden brings to the table his Cold War era stereotypes of the KGB and Soviet communists; Putin, 10 years his junior, his post-Cold War grievances. In this personality clash, there’s no room for the kind of personal trust that breaks an impasse, the kind that developed between Gorbachev and Reagan or, at least for a time, between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. 

Sadly, the Biden-Putin animosity mirrors a relationship between the two countries that is more dead than alive — a state that both leaders prefer because of its mutual political benefits. Putin, who has bet big on denouncing the Russian opposition as “foreign agents” doing Western bidding, needs the U.S. as an enemy. Biden cannot afford to be seen as cozying up to Putin: He got a taste of what that can bring last month, when he refrained from sanctioning the German operators of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He was only trying to maintain a good relationship with key ally Germany — but accusations of going soft on Russia started flying.  They still do ahead of the summit, with some commentators assuming Biden has the tools to blow Putin’s corrupt government out of the water but prefers not to. Biden’s decision to meet with Putin ahead of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is another cause for criticism. In short, Biden cannot lose by being tough on Putin; but being perceived as not tough enough immediately puts him on the defensive.

Under these layers of personal mistrust and political expediency, there are few issues that the U.S. and Russia can discuss to their mutual benefit. In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev met as leaders of the only superpowers, the two countries capable of destroying not just each other but also the world. That mutual burden of responsibility informed their Geneva conversations. Today, the U.S. and Russia still derive power from their vast nuclear arsenals, but rather than imposing a joint responsibility, this balance of power mostly enables Putin to play the tough guy with impunity in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, the Middle East and Africa. Maintaining the nuclear balance appears to be the only meaningful common agenda; it’s also an issue that validates the underlying hostility with which both sides are comfortable.

Apart from the nuclear agenda, in which no breakthroughs are expected because no new major treaties have been prepared, and that usually takes years, there are only minor issues like restoring curtailed diplomatic relations: the return of ambassadors, recalled to both countries for “consultations,” the resumption of the consular business as usual after a series of tit-for-tat expulsions. All that such a mini-normalization can bring about, however, is easier travel between the two countries. The U.S. and Russian diplomatic services are as clueless as Biden and Putin themselves on what the nations could comfortably do together. 

Biden would like Putin to weaken his grip on Ukraine and to crack down on malicious Russian cyber actors hitting U.S. companies; for Putin, there’s no upside to obliging. Putin would like Biden to recognize the 2014 annexation of Crimea and stop trying to undermine his rule with sanctions; for Biden, there’s no benefit in either. There’s nothing the two could trade, no bargain they can make, no win-win scenario. For all the years U.S. leaders spent trying to convince Russia that the bilateral relationship is not zero-sum, it has become exactly that. One reason for the stalemate is that Putin appears certain he can outlast any U.S. president; Biden is his fifth, after all. There’s nothing the Russian autocrat hasn’t heard from one or another U.S. leader before; he’s convinced that the U.S. will never give an inch, and in turn, he’s dug in, seemingly for life.

Putin and Biden have tried and failed to talk to each other, then resorted to talking trash about each other. In Geneva, they will most likely talk at each other. That’s a barren prospect; but perhaps there’ll be more anecdotes for Biden to repeat, and Putin’s self-esteem as America’s unbendable opponent will get another boost. More than that it would make little sense to expect.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."

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