Biden’s Russian Reset

James Denselow
James Denselow

The Presidents of Russia and the United States met last Wednesday in Geneva for the first time since 2018. It was a significant meeting both because of its historic context and what it means for the future with the power and influence of the two countries spanning far beyond their borders.  Russian Reset

Yet it was events at Russia’s borders that led to the meeting happening in the first place. The vast build-up of some 150,000 Russian forces on Ukraine’s border sparked wild frenzy as to what Moscow was planning. The decision made by Biden’s White House to use diplomacy to deescalate and call for the Geneva Summit meant that Putin’s honour was met, and worst-case scenarios were taken off the table.

What does Russia want? Is the often-asked question. The country’s economy is vastly smaller than its US rival and the days of the Cold War competition are long gone. Yet the country covers 7 million square kilometres, encompassing more than one-eighth of Earth’s inhabited land area and extending across eleven time zones. Russia has an estimated stockpile of some 7,000 nuclear weapons and has proven willing to extend its strategic influence beyond its neighbourhood as its key role in the conflict in Syria has demonstrated.

At the meeting in Geneva, which went on for a shorter time than expected, President Biden gave his Russian counterpart a pair of his trademark aviator sunglasses and following closed door talks Russian President Vladimir Putin said Mr Biden was an experienced statesman and the two “spoke the same language”. Biden’s experience was demonstrated by his reflections that; “it’s about self-interest and the verification of self-interest. Or, as the old expression goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.  Russian Reset

However, the meeting was an important crossroads and whilst a few hours of facetime can’t remove all the issues of global contention that are currently in play, it can allow for positions to be made clearer and hopefully for respective ‘red lines’ not to be lost in translation. There was perhaps no better example of this than the fact that issues of cyber warfare were discussed.

The challenge of this new zone of high-tech competition is that state actors are not clear what the rules of the game are in contrast to more conventional deterrence and interactions. Russia aircraft have regularly flown in or close to NATO airspace forcing the alliance to scramble interceptors, under the water Russian submarines play cat and mouse with their NATO equivalents. Land forces can be mobilised for presence or training in ways that can force an opponent to respond. Yet cyber warfare is a new terrain with state actors far harder to attribute than classic forces. 

Biden explained that he had told Putin that “we need some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by”. The US President went further and into detail explaining that critical infrastructure should be off-limits and gave Putin a list of 16 strategic sectors that he expected to be respected. This followed recent major cyber attacks against US Government networks as well as a spate of ransomware attacks against private companies. 

Another concrete outcome of the talks is that both sides agreed to restore Ambassadorial presence in each other capitals that had been withdrawn in March. Having these channels are the bread and butter of strategic communications between states and should be welcomed. An interesting test of how much influence Biden was able to exert during the talks will be around a vote on Syria. The mandate for the UN cross border aid operation into the northwest of the country expires on July 10th and there has been speculation that the Russians wouldn’t allow a further renewal. Cutting off aid to such a beleaguered and vulnerable Syrian population would of course have devastating consequences but Biden wasn’t able to give any clear steer as to which way Putin would go on the vote. 

The Geneva meetings certainly didn’t have obvious high-profile deliverables and critics would argue that it gave Putin status and profile on the world stage without securing anything concrete in response. Yet Biden knows that Putin has met with many US Presidents during his time in power in Russia and perhaps rationalises that it is better to have open channels and not have Moscow intent on playing a disruptive role as possible for him to pursue his wider agenda. The upcoming Syria cross border aid vote will be a key test as to whether this approach is paying off. Russian Reset

by: James Denselow levant

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James Denselow,