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Biden lifts Putin out of global isolation

Eggert Konstantin
Konstantin Eggert
June 17, 2021

US President Joe Biden needs to move beyond a Cold War mentality to effectively counter Vladimir Putin's asset-rich regime, says Konstantin Eggert.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin waves as he leaves after the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland
For Putin and his close circle, the biggest worry is the survival of their regime, writes Konstantin EggertImage: Denis Balibouse/REUTERS/AP/picture alliance

Vladimir Putin exuded satisfaction as he appeared before journalists after a 3 1/2-hour meeting with Joe Biden in Geneva. And he had good reason. With the summit, the US president had single-handedly lifted the Russian strongman out of international isolation and given a green light to other Western leaders, including the German chancellor and the French president, to do so more frequently as well — should they wish to.

Cybersecurity key for Biden

Putin's press conference was mostly the usual game of Soviet-style "whataboutism" — including comparing the Kremlin's anti-media and anti-NGO legislation with the US "foreign agents" legislation, which in contrast is mostly aimed at lobbyists.

Konstantin Eggert
Konstantin Eggert reports on Russian affairs for DW

When speaking on the substance of talks, Putin also seemed pleased that planned discussions around strategic stability will address a broad range of subjects and not only the New START treaty, which must be renegotiated anyway.

It looks as if cybersecurity was a top priority for the Americans. Putin must have known this, and how it should not be too difficult for him to accede to US demands — at least as far as Russian special services cyber teams are concerned. Putin must have also been pleased with the fact that Ukraine — a singular issue around which most of his self-image and domestic prestige revolves — did not feature prominently in the discussions in Geneva.

Leaving the Cold War mentality behind

As is frequently the case at such summits, Biden and Putin traded well-prepared giveaways. US and Russian ambassadors John J. Sullivan and Anatoly Antonov will return to their respective posts in Washington and Moscow. Putin also hinted at a possible exchange of two US citizens jailed in Russia for Russian nationals imprisoned in the US.

It was clear Biden came to the summit very well briefed and ready to confront Putin, should he need to. As a career politician, Biden's experience is vast; his first visit to the Soviet Union was back in 1979, as a young senator.

But he may have committed a conceptual error by judging Putin on Cold War merits, as he might have done with former Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev or Mikhail Gorbachev. Not only is modern Russia weaker than the USSR in almost every respect — militarily, economically or demographically — but also, the nature of its leadership is now radically different. The Soviet Politburo acted on what it presumed to be in the national interest, and wasn't much concerned about losing power or property.

'Win-win' rhetoric won't work

For Putin and his close circle, the biggest worry is the survival of their regime. They are playing a weaker hand than the Communists of old. And as opposed to them, the current ruling class also happens to own Russia's most valuable assets — oil, gas and other commodities — through the network of state corporations they manage. In such circumstances, national interests give way to the personal ones. And in modern Russia, the former has long since become a way to camouflage the latter.

Ukrainian army conduct a drill with military tanks while military activity continues in the Donbas region
The conflict in Ukraine remains a key battlefield in Russia-US relationsImage: Armed Forces of Ukraine/AA/picture alliance

This makes unpredictability the Kremlin's tool of choice in dealing with the outside world — especially the West, which Putin believes is bent on regime change in Moscow. In order to deal with Putin with at least a modicum of confidence and trust, the West must give him the guarantees he has long been seeking. This consists of letting him do what he wants domestically and leaving countries of the post-Soviet space under his unofficial tutelage, especially when it comes to deciding on issues like NATO membership. And this is something no Western politician is prepared to grant — and yet, they are not prepared to forcefully confront the Kremlin, either.

In Putin's universe, strength breeds respect. For Russian leadership, Cold War-style entreaties about common interests and "win-win" are either seen as a trap, or as a sign of weakness. The former has to be unmasked; the latter, taken advantage of.

In this respect, Ukraine remains the main political battlefield where the Kremlin will test America's new Russia policy.

Correction, June 17, 2021: A previous version of this article stated that Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev were Russian leaders. This has now been corrected. We apologize for the error.