Only the politically hopeful might imagine that a lovefest would occur when Joseph Biden met Vladimir Putin at Geneva. This was not an encounter of yesteryear, always at Geneva, when both Reagan and Gorbachev could welcome the transformation of the Soviet “Evil Empire” then underway. Both leaders then mistakenly believed that Russia would become more or less democratic.
The importance of the Biden-Putin meeting lies in the fact that, at this time of negative escalation between Moscow and Washington, the two men have shaken hands; that they have sat together and exchanged complaints about the alleged behavior of the other country; and that they have agreed to try to put an end to some of the antics that one or the other country finds irksome.
It is of course a pity that, unlike in the past, the two leaders held separate press conferences, reporting as to what transpired. As reported, there was apparently more hostility between and among, the Russian and American press representatives than between Putin and Biden.
The two men reiterated that nuclear war is just unthinkable. There may have been a difference of opinion regarding nuclear warfare. But Putin can be under no illusion that, for example, Russian cyber interference with American elections will, as once was the case, be minimized and go un-responded. As President Biden frankly put it, he came to Geneva and did exactly what he intended. Nothing more. Vladimir Putin now should understand that he can no longer count on almost placid admiration from the White House.
It was obvious that Biden would complain about the Russian government’s treatment of political dissent, and Russia’s terrible record when it comes to human rights. Putin might in turn be expected, as he did, to complain about the excessive behavior of the American police, at Minneapolis, Minnesota and elsewhere. It was perhaps somewhat surprising that he would publicly note American behavior at Guantanamo.
Surprisingly, Putin seems to have minimized and indeed, aligned with those Americans who on January 6 of this year participated in the insurrection and invasion of the Capitol building. We are slowly learning that this assault was a genuine insurrection, however misguided it may have been. Putin seems to have lined up with his friend, Donald Trump, regarding that dangerous act.
One can only imagine what would happen, under Vladimir Putin, if a handful of Russians were to mount an assault against the Kremlin. Actually, to invade it, to do millions of rubles in damage, to attempt to maul legislators, or to sit in the Speaker’s office, pretending that the payment of taxes sanctions such behavior.
We should rejoice about the Geneva meeting largely because the two leaders have actually met. Long-distance and mutual recriminations will continue. As will cyber warfare between Russia and the United States. However, both countries will continue to trade with and maintain other friendly relations with each other. They have also agreed to an exchange of ambassadors.
Much more important is China. A somewhat declining Russia has good reason to worry about a China at its border. It is of immense importance to both countries; both Putin and Biden have agreed that it is crucial to be aware of, and to deal peacefully with, contemporary Chinese aggressiveness.
That last achievement, despite its studied ambiguity, is reason enough for celebrating the meeting at Geneva. Equally compelling is that an American president is not cynically smiling. That is, acting as if Putin is America’s friend. Or publicly patting Putin on the back, alleging that Putin’s denials are more credible than the negative findings on the part of American intelligence services regarding him.
Bottom line: At Geneva President Biden did much better than FDR once did at Yalta. Unlike the past, recent or remote future, Putin will no longer imagine he has a buddy in the Oval Office.