Suddenly it’s President Joe Biden’s summit season. Within two weeks, Biden will participate in three summits, one of which has a more important goal: a new strategy toward Russia that includes diplomatic outreach and effective accountability for President Vladimir Putin for human rights abuses at home and aggression abroad. Does this seem difficult? It is really difficult. Successive US administrations have failed to achieve it since President George W. Bush declared, after a summit in 2001, that he understood Putin’s “spirit” and expected “very constructive relations” with Moscow. Since then, Putin has become more confrontational globally. And the
This makes the challenge that President Biden now faces even more daunting.
This is especially true when it comes to forcing Putin to pay a price for Moscow’s policies. Economic and diplomatic sanctions, the traditional American choice of pressure, have little effect on Russian policies. Coordination with allies and the use of new tools is needed. President Biden will make his move toward diplomatic engagement at the June 16 summit with President Putin in Jiyeh. Biden is already facing criticism from Republican party politicians and some Russian opposition officials for agreeing to meet with Putin.
Biden was asked why the Russian leader was being “rewarded” despite his arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Why the “reward”? As Russia — after annexing Crimea from neighboring Ukraine — massed thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border, and as the Kremlin backed its ally Belarus in the hijacking of a civilian plane to arrest opposition figures last month. Why the meeting in the midst of an escalating Russian digital attack on America and its European allies?
But the Biden administration views the summit differently. She sees it not as a “reward,” but as a step toward restoring “predictability and stability” in US relations with Moscow, said Jen Psaki, a White House spokeswoman. For Biden, this means cooperating, as much as possible, on matters of common interest, such as controlling proliferation, climate change, the pandemic, and perhaps even in troubled regions, such as the Middle East. With the administration’s foreign policy focused on China, Biden may be tempted to avoid a purely adversarial relationship with the Kremlin. But US officials say that when he sits down with his Russian counterpart, Biden will not engage in a happy conversation. His speech will be direct, criticizing Russia’s human rights record and its digital aggression and addressing the issues of Ukraine and Belarus.
But the main difficulty Biden will have is not what he will say to Putin, it is to show strength in his message. This means finding tools to curb Russian behavior more effectively than in the past and gaining support from US allies. And here comes the role of the other two previous summits on the Geneva summit. The first summit is the summit of the leaders of the seven major industrialized countries hosted, in the past few days, by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Cornwell, on the southwest coast of England. After that, Biden will travel to Belgium for a summit on June 14 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
And NATO is central to Biden’s strategy. With the recent deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe and exercises that reflect significant military readiness this month, the alliance is hinting that it is ready to address any threat to European members, including former Soviet republics such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or countries that were once affiliated with the Soviet Union. such as Poland and Hungary. The NATO summit addresses a range of security issues, but the list of priorities focuses on two issues that are sure to come up in Biden and Putin talks in a few days. The two issues are “Russian moves” and “digital attacks.” But ironically, the G7 meeting may turn out to be the most important. The meetings of the seven major industrialized nations deal with economic and social issues for the wider world. Officially, Russia is not on the priority list. But Biden needs European help to put pressure on Putin. The leaders of France, Germany and the European Union agree on issues of concern and have coordinated, in the past few years, the imposition of sanctions on Russian officials and Russian institutions.
But Europeans also have economic ties to Russia that make them reluctant to take risks. There is the offshore Nord Stream-2 pipeline that transports Russian natural gas to Germany. The project faced strong opposition from all political spectrum in the United States. But last month Biden lifted sanctions on companies that helped build the pipeline, a goodwill gesture that appears to help win Europeans over to his broader strategy toward Russia. Biden will now meet allies as some Russian policy experts, as well as the Russian opposition leader Navalny and his top lieutenants, are urging more precise sanctions aimed at freezing or confiscating the assets of the politically dominant wealthy class.
Much of the wealth of these super-rich flows through the London financial markets. Britain has imposed some hurdles in the past few years on these activities, but stronger action is needed if a European-American effort is to make a more effective impact on Russian policy. And the results of the G7 summit will show how likely this is to happen.
* American journalist
Published by special arrangement with the Christian Science Monitor service.