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Reading the tea leaves a week before Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva puts a premium on the kind of media analysis we old-school Kremlinologists had to rely on back in the day. Not all rhetoric is equal though; it is just as important to make an honest attempt to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding a major initiative like the summit proposal. The weird timing of the invitation cries out for explanation.
You Asked For It, Joe
Lest we forget,President Biden suggested a summit with Putin in the midst of very high tension over Ukraine. On March 24 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued an official decree that Ukraine would take Crimea back from Russia; Kiev's strategy includes "military measures" to achieve "de-occupation." U.S. and NATO voice "unwavering" (rhetorical) support for Zelensky, who sends tons of military equipment south and east. Russia sends troops and arms south and west into Crimea and the border area opposite Luhansk and Donetsk in the eastern Ukraine.
One Day in April
The following refresher on what all went down on April 13 may throw some light on why -- in such tense circumstances -- Biden proposed a summit with Putin.
- NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg slams Russia for sending "thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine's borders."
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu says, in effect, Yes, Stoltenberg has that right; Moscow has sent "two armies and three airborne formations to western regions" over the prior three weeks.
- Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov criticizes NATO and the US for "deliberately turning Ukraine into a powder keg." Strongly advises cancellation of plans for imminent passage of two US guided-missile destroyers into Black Sea. (The plans were canceled.)
- President Biden calls President Putin, later calls the conversation "candid and respectful." Putin spokesman describes it as "businesslike and rather long." Biden proposes "a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia," according to the White House.
"Stable and Predictable"
In broaching a summit meeting to Putin, Biden "reaffirmed his goal of building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with US interests," according to the White House. The White House readout gave pride of place to their discussion of "a number of regional and global issues, including the intent of the United States and Russia to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues, building on the extension of the New START Treaty."
It is a safe bet that Biden and his advisers learned a valuable lesson in barely avoiding being mousetrapped into facing open hostilities (or an embarrassing backdown) in Ukraine -- an area in which Russia has an "asymmetric" (as Putin later described it) preponderance of power. Thus, beneath all the gratuitous insults and asymmetrically harsh Western media rhetoric, Biden and co. might see a priority interest in heading off such misadventures in the future.
If Not Yet Trust, Then Mutual Interest
Biden and Putin might see at least a modicum of common interest in developing a useful dialogue on regional issues (like Ukraine), as well as a more obvious strategic interest in avoiding mutual annihilation. On Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan defended Biden's summit initiative, stressing the need for "strategic stability and progress on arms control." Sullivan described Putin as "a singular kind of personalized leader, so a chance "to come together at a summit will allow us to manage this relationship " most effectively."
For his part, President Putin commenting in St. Petersburg on Friday on what issues will enjoy pride of place at the summit, also spoke of "strategic stability [and] settling international conflicts in the hottest spots," disarmament and terrorism. Acknowledging the political pressures any US president faces in trying to carve out a more sensible relationship with Russia, Putin conceded that "to a certain extent, Russian-American relations have become hostage to internal political processes in the United States itself." He added:
"I hope it ends someday. I mean the fundamental interests in the field of at least security, strategic stability and the reduction of weapons dangerous for the whole world are still more important than the current domestic political situation in the United States itself."
Taking a more conventional tack regarding current US policy, Putin lamented: US leaders "want to hold back our development and they talk about this openly. Everything else is a derivative [including] an attempt to influence the internal political processes in our country, relying on the forces that they consider to be their own in Russia."
In a separate interview on Russia's Channel 1, Putin described Biden as "an experienced, balanced, and accurate" politician, and expressed the hope that those qualities would have a positive effect on the upcoming negotiations. Putin said, "I am not expecting anything that could become a breakthrough in U.S.-Russia relations," but added that the Geneva talks may well create the right conditions for taking further steps toward normalizing Russia-U.S. ties, which would in itself be "a positive result."
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