What to expect from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva

Biden photo: Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via AP; Putin photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik,/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The much anticipated meeting in Geneva on Wednesday comes as tensions between the United States and Russia are at a high.

United States President Joe Biden will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday for the pair’s first face-to-face summit since Biden took office.

The highly anticipated meeting at the Villa La Grange in Eaux-Vives comes as tensions between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers are at a high. Although experts predict the meeting won’t produce any major breakthroughs, there are hopes it will give both sides the opportunity to lay down some boundaries and begin to thaw the frosty atmosphere between the leaders.

Ties between Russia and the US have frayed in recent years over issues including cyber security, election meddling, the conflict in Ukraine and human rights. Strained diplomatic relations have manifested in expulsions of diplomats from Washington and Moscow, and strong words of condemnation on both sides. However, the announcement of the summit has been hailed as a sign that a more stable relationship could be on the horizon.

So why are the two leaders meeting in Geneva this week, and what can we expect?

What’s the goal of the summit? Representatives in the US have spoken of a “stable and predictable relationship” in reference to their approach to Russia, and seem keen to move away from the volatility of the recent past towards something more functional.

“I think the success of this [summit] in part is the fact that diplomatic wheels are turning in a more normal fashion than they have in the past few years,” Jussi Hanhimaki, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions.

On the day, the two presidents are scheduled to first meet privately, joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. They are due to be joined afterwards by other aides and move on to expanded bilateral discussions.

Read also: Biden-Putin summit: what’s the agenda?

No formal agreements or joint declarations are expected to come out of the summit, and most statements will likely be prepared in advance. It’s possible that the pair could decide to meet informally on the sidelines of the main event, as President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did during their historic Geneva meeting in 1985 – the last time Russian and American leaders met in the city.

But because of the perceived animosity between the pair, with Biden having notoriously called Putin a “killer” with “no soul” in the past, experts say this is unlikely. “My guess is it’s going to be quite frosty and formal,” says Hanhimaki. “These are not strangers. They already know what to expect, and it is probably going to be fairly scripted.”

Why is this happening now? Biden has made it clear early on in his term that he wants to make a clean break from the Trump administration, with his renewal of multilateralism and “America is back” approach to foreign policy.

“The president’s meetings in the past days with the G7 in the UK and NATO and the EU in Brussels in the run-up to the Geneva summit have sent a clear message to Putin,” said Hanhimaki. “Biden and the US want to emphasise that the pecking order within the West is still the same, that [the US] represents a broader community of democracies… that despite what you may have heard over the past four years, this is still the case.”

Re-establishing a functional relationship with Russia and scaling down tensions is also part of Biden’s comprehensive renewal of US-led diplomacy. In spite of the rocky relationship between the two countries, Hanhimaki said the summit is an indication that “diplomacy is still working”.

“It might be an illusion, but at least it’s a sign that, despite their many differences, there is still hope for some kind of normal diplomatic relationship.”

What’s on the agenda? Rebuilding these diplomatic ties will be a key priority for both Russia and the US, who are likely keen to move past the recent tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats from Moscow and Washington.

President Biden told a NATO press conference earlier this week that he would use the summit to make it clear to Putin what the “red lines” are. Topics expected to be discussed cover Russian interference in US elections, conflict in the Middle East, cybersecurity, arms control and ongoing issues of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Human rights will also be a key point for the US delegation, who will likely reference the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, as will Russia’s support for authoritarian leaders such as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and the recent grounding of a Ryanair flight in Minsk.

“I would suspect there's going to be a lot in the summit on which they're going to disagree, and the hope that most people have is that they agree to disagree rather than that there'll be some form of an open conflict,” said Hanhimaki. “In essence, that's the point of the summit in the first place – that you come together to agree that while we don't see eye to eye there are perhaps some issues where we can find common ground.”

What could they agree on? There are a number of issues where the two could find common ground, including the response to the Covid-19 pandemic – particularly vaccine allocation, with the G7 having just promised one million vaccine doses for poorer countries and Russia rolling out its own Sputnik vaccine to India, countries in South America and neighbours in Eastern Europe. The two could also agree on environmental issues, with Washington keen to cooperate with the Kremlin on the Arctic in particular.

The two powers are also expected to discuss how they can maintain “strategic stability” – a phrase used by both US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who are attending the summit. This refers to maintaining a balance of power and avoiding all-out conflict, including adhering to the New START arms control treaty which Putin and Biden agreed to extend within days of the new president’s inauguration. The pair could also agree to work together to curb Iran’s nuclear programme.

What are their priorities? Both leaders will naturally be approaching the summit with different priorities. “If you're Joe Biden, you're going into this summit to speak to both the world and a domestic US audience and say ‘America is back’,” said Hanhimaki. “That we prefer multilateralism and cooperation internationally, and that Russia is one of the problems and is often violating the rules of international cooperation. That we are here to help, and they are here to obstruct.”

Experts also suspect China will be the “elephant in the room” during discussions, and could have been a motivation behind them taking place. “For the Biden administration and even for the Trump administration prior to that, Russia is not the big existential threat they see – [it’s] China,” Hanhimaki told Geneva Solutions. “So probably one motivation for the Biden administration to pursue a better working relationship with Russia going forward is that the worst scenario for them would be some kind of ganging up against the US by Russia and China.”

For Putin, the summit gives the impression that “they are the two big guys that are meeting,” said Hanhimaki. "Putin would like to be seen as one of the big two.”

Experts believe US interference in what Putin dubs Russian ‘domestic affairs' such as human rights, including the poisoning and imprisonment of Navalny, will be one of the Russian delegations’ so-called ‘red lines’.

“The other thing that is important for Putin is that this summit is not just for international audiences but also for the domestic audience, and he’s the tough guy – the one who protects Russian national interest against external interference,” said Hanhimaki.

Who has the upper hand? For Biden, making any concessions to Russia could be politically damaging. He likely cannot afford to go easy on issues such as cybersecurity or turn a blind eye to human rights violations. “He has to tread very carefully [as] there are some red lines he cannot cross for domestic reasons,” said Hanhimaki.

“I think for Putin it’s a much simpler task,” he added. ”He's not really playing for a global audience in the same way as Joe Biden is and he has much less to lose in terms of what his goals and aims are.”

Also, Putin is a veteran of such meetings, which could work in his favour. “Biden has experienced them as vice president but it's not quite the same setup, so I think Putin’s task is fairly straightforward,” Hanhimaki. “He’s used to stalling and is used to refusing to answer certain questions or deny certain things when confronted.”

Why Geneva? Helsinki in Finland and Vienna in Austria – both neutral countries – were also reportedly in the running to host the summit, although the legacy of former president Donald Trump’s 2018 meeting with Putin likely discounted Helsinki early on.

Experts believe Switzerland’s neutrality as a non-NATO and non-EU member made it the obvious front runner, as well as its long reputation as an international city of peace and multilateralism, home to the European headquarters of the United Nations.

“Geneva has this legendary reputation as a meeting place, as a neutral ground, where problems are solved,” said Hanhimaki. “Whether it's true or not is another matter ... but [this] boosts that and gives it a new lease of life.”

What could it mean for international relations? It goes without saying that a more functional relationship between the US and Russia would be widely welcomed by the international community. “Not being Trump is important internationally, and it's clear in Western Europe that everyone breathed a big sigh of relief when Biden became president, and there's been a welcoming back of some kind of normality since January this year,” said Hanhimaki.

Although Putin himself said last week that he doesn't expect any “breakthroughs in Russian-US ties, nothing that will dumbfound us all with results,” hopes are high that the summit will prove a step in the right direction.

“The fact that there is this meeting in the first place is in some ways a positive sign for the future. How we will go from here depends a lot on the subsequent negotiations and behaviour that are not going to take place at the highest levels but most likely in the long grind of diplomacy that's going to continue after this week, ”said Hanhimaki.

“The most likely thing you might see [first] is the return of normal diplomatic relations in terms of full ambassadors actually being present in both Moscow and Washington, which might take place over the summer. I think that would symbolically be a hugely important step in terms of ongoing diplomacy. ”