Butterfly Effect: Why Biden's Really Meeting Putin
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Don't expect a breakthrough. Putin will, for the first time, meet a new U.S. president who won't be duped by him.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
President Joe Biden is embarking on his first overseas visits since entering the White House. Today, he’ll fly to the U.K., where he’ll hold bilateral talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before attending a summit of the G-7 group of nations. Then he’ll travel to Brussels for meetings with the European Union and NATO.
But Biden has kept the trickiest part of his trip for last. Next week on June 16, Biden will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It’ll be Biden’s most-watched meeting since he took office in January. And it’s a conversation that has foreign policy observers scratching their heads.
Typically in diplomacy, you meet the counterpart leader of a truly adversarial nation after your officials have done the groundwork for a potential breakthrough. Yet if anything, differences between Washington and Moscow have only grown since Biden came to power — over everything from Russia’s interference in the 2020 election to the fact that it hosts hackers who appear to be attacking major firms like Colonial Pipeline and Brazilian meat giant JBS. Russia’s threat to America’s European allies remains undimmed.
Biden’s own National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday not to expect major breakthroughs from the meeting in Geneva. “If you are going to wait for really significant deliverables, you could be waiting for a long time, conceivably,” he said.
So why then is Biden meeting Putin? Sullivan outlined areas where the U.S. and Russia could work together. Key among them is the New START Treaty, a modern version of a Cold War pact aimed at controlling the use of nuclear weapons. Moscow recently accused Washington of violating the agreement.
But it doesn’t require a conclave between presidents to clear the air on such a deal. Look carefully, and Biden’s planned meeting with Putin is in keeping with a surprising pattern to global interactions that the U.S. president has demonstrated so far. It’s an approach that reflects Biden’s confidence on a global stage, where he’s the most experienced U.S. president in decades.
Consider the recent crisis between Israel and Hamas that left hundreds dead, including several dozen children. When Biden decided he wanted to meaningfully intervene, he didn’t rely on his secretary of state or NSA to convey a message to Israel. He picked up the phone himself and told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wind down the war, while his team made the gist of his call public.
With Saudi Arabia, another troublesome ally, Biden has chosen to deliberately snub Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, refusing to speak with him on the phone while calling the royal’s role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “outrageous.” Sure, Biden has refused to directly sanction the crown prince, but it’s hard to imagine such a tough stance against Riyadh from previous White House incumbents five months into their stint in office.
Biden will use the meeting in Geneva “to look President Putin in the eye and say, ‘This is what America’s expectations are. This is what America stands for. This is what America’s all about,’” Sullivan told reporters.
It’s a risky strategy. Critics have pointed out that Biden is elevating Putin’s stature by agreeing to meet him at a time when the Russian president faces growing protests at home. Ahead of the meeting, Biden’s administration has also lifted U.S. sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project connecting Russia’s Arctic region to Germany. Biden has previously opposed the project, though Berlin desperately wants Russian gas to secure its energy needs.
And Putin knows how to play American presidents, having met and worked with four of them previously: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Bush and Obama both emerged from their first meetings with Putin optimistic about the direction of relations with Russia, only for the Kremlin to prove them wrong. So the skepticism around Biden’s meeting with Putin is understandable — perhaps even warranted.
But there are key differences that could make Biden’s broader approach to diplomacy smart. In 2021, the world is ruled by a growing number of populist regimes — from Israel and Turkey to Brazil and India — with strongmen leaders who don’t follow traditional processes of governance. To really get through to them, a direct blunt conversation is more effective than Diplomatese.
America, like never before, recognizes that its true challenger is China, not Russia. To truly focus its resources on countering Beijing, Washington today needs to restore some predictability and stability to relations with Moscow.
And when it comes to Russia, Biden — unlike his predecessors when they first entered the White House — has personally met Putin on several occasions and knows what to expect when they sit down in Geneva. He told Putin a decade ago that he didn’t think the Russian leader had “a soul.” He’s unlikely to be duped into misplaced optimism in the cool Swiss air of Geneva.
Instead, the meeting could offer Biden an opportunity to present Putin with a clear-eyed and cold new dynamic. In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a big red reset button to demonstrate American intentions. Twelve years later, Biden could make clear to Putin that those days of naïveté are over — and that America needs the Kremlin to press reset first.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi