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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 27, New Delhi, June 19, 2021

Putin-Biden 16th June Summit Meeting in Geneva Modest Success — Few Highlights | R G Gidadhubli

Friday 18 June 2021

by R G Gidadhubli

The Summit Meeting between the US President Biden and the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on the 16th June 2021 was held when bilateral relations between the two countries are at a low level. In fact relations between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War Era. In an interview broadcast by NBC on 11th June, Putin has admitted that the U.S.-Russia relationship had "deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years." In fact things are so bad that neither country has an ambassador in the other country during the last over a year, which is most pathetic. This is partly because as per reports a few months back Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, returned to Moscow for consultations after Biden gave a TV interview in which he agreed with the suggestion that Putin was "a killer", which hit headlines in the global media. Perhaps Biden had in his mind that Kremlin was responsible for some recent killing of critics and opponents of Putin. They include ex-KGB spy Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was poisoned, and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin. Disagreeing with comments and allegations made against him, Putin has responded that the term “killer” is part of "macho behavior" common in Hollywood and that such discourse "is part of U.S. political culture, where it’s considered normal.

 Looking back Joe Biden and Putin met on 10th March 2011 when Biden was the Vice President of America and Putin was the Prime Minister of Russia. While both Putin and Biden are keen for this bilateral Summit, many analysts and political leaders have “no illusions about the prospects for major progress. For instance, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was candid in saying “We don’t try to give the impression that there will be a breakthrough or historic momentous decisions.” Similarly, some White House officials have also signaled low expectations for the Geneva meeting. An effort has been made to give few Highlights of the Summit and from my perspective the outcome of the Summit was modest.

Firstly, the nuclear issue was one of the main items of the agenda of the meeting. The Summit can claim some success since in a joint statement on arms control issued by the White House and the Kremlin on 16th June, Biden and Putin said the extension of New START "exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control." Moreover, both the leaders have stated that they would hold new talks "to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures." In fact in 2021 shortly after Biden took over the presidency of the USA, it was appreciable that both the United States and Russia extended the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty for another five years. Arms-control advocates hailed the five-year extension, which maintains caps on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, even as some Republican politicians were critical of this policy decision.

In fact, as reported by Mike Eckel who is a senior correspondent in Prague both the presidents Biden and Putin "have demonstrated that even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war". Because in reality the treaty limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear forces but does not limit total nuclear warhead stockpiles. But as opined by Kristensen the prospects for additional bilateral nuclear arms control between the nuclear superpowers remain poor. Because while USA and Russia account for 90 pc of world’s existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the other seven nuclear powers are also developing or deploying new weapons systems or have announced their intention to do so.

As reported by SIPRI both the United States and Russia are carrying out "extensive and expensive" programs to replace and modernize their nuclear arsenals. Increasing the importance to nuclear weapons is a part of their national security strategies. It has further added "China is in the middle of a significant modernization and expansion of its nuclear weapon inventory, and India and Pakistan also appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals", which is a matter of concern for security from the global perspective.
Secondly, NATO issue was possibly a matter of discussion between Biden and Putin. Because while Trump questioned NATO’s security alliance’s relevance, Biden during the latest G7 Summit on 14th and 15th June 2021 set the main goal to make progress on a new strategic concept of NATO 2030, which may have caused concern to Russia. The key task for Biden who has already reversed a Trump decision seems to simply reassert Washington’s commitment to the defense of NATO.

Thirdly, on-going conflict between Russia and Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was one of the issues during the Summit. Putin has legitimate security concern because Ukraine is keen to join NATO. Ukraine has been pressing for negotiations on joining this Western military alliance since it was promised in 2008 that there was a pathway to membership, citing alleged Russia’s ongoing support for separatists in eastern Ukrainian and its occupation of Crimea. But the Kremlin has warned NATO several times against admitting Ukraine, even as many European countries might support Ukraine. As per reports Russia conducted military readiness exercises in March-April 2021 involving over 100,000 troops and masses of military hardware on the Russian-Ukrainian border inside Russia’s territory, were a further signal to Ukraine and its NATO partners that Russia will use force to block any outcome it opposes, including Kyiv’s recent push for NATO membership.

Fourthly, Biden seems to have brought what Washington sees as pressing transnational priorities to the summit table, including climate change in the rapidly warming and melting Arctic. Despite its dependency on fossil fuel exports, Moscow has also real concerns about Arctic climate change, suggesting that Russia’s current two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council could be an opportunity to identify common ground on both mitigation and adaptation strategies. Hence there was some common consensus on this global issue. The U.S. leader has stated even prior to the Summit meeting that the United States wants a "stable, predictable" relationship that allows Moscow and Washington to work together on common issues like strategic stability, arms control, and climate change.

Fifthly, the USA and the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy nations have urged Russia to take action against those conducting cyberattacks and using ransomware from within its borders. This is because according to US authorities a cybercriminal group had been operating from Russia and penetrated a pipeline operator on the U.S. East Coast, locking its systems and demanding a ransom. In response in January 2021 the Biden White House has hit Moscow with two new rounds of sanctions: one in response to U.S. intelligence findings that Russian agents were behind a massive cyberhack of U.S. government agencies and the other over the near-fatal poisoning of Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny. In fact the White House had already indicated that Biden will bring up ransomware attacks emanating from Russia at the meeting. On this issue on 13th June ahead of 16th June 16 summit Putin has stated in an interview that Russia would be ready to hand over suspected cybercriminals to the United States but only if Washington did the same for Moscow and if the two powers reached an agreement on the matter. It appears some positive discussion and consensus has been arrived at.

Sixth, issues of human rights and the arrest of Aleksei Navalny were discussed. As expected Putin dismissed Washington’s concerns over the crackdown on dissent and the free press claiming that the Russian government has adopted "foreign agent" legislation from the perspectives of its own national security interest. Putin has claimed that Navalny has violated Russian law and hence punished. Moreover, both the leaders were on common ground and there was an agreement between the presidents to return their ambassadors to their posts in a bid to lower tensions.

Seventh after the meeting Putin held his press conference and said there was no hostility during the meeting and that the conversation was "rather constructive." He added "Our assessment of many issues differ, but in my view both sides demonstrated the desire to understand each other and look for ways to get closer". Similarly, on his part Biden was candid in stating " We’re not seeking conflict with Russia. We want a stable and predictable relationship.... But I’ve been clear: The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way if the Russian government engages in harmful activities.”

In fact a joint statement issued after the summit specifies "the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust. Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures”.

On the basis of what is discussed above, it may be stated that there is some positive outcome of the Summit.

17th June 2021

(Author: Dr R.G. Gidadhubli, Professor and Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India)

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