Can the upcoming Biden-Putin meeting improve relations?

Given US-Russia relations are at a low ebb right now, dialogue is welcome

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks while marking Day of Russia at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 12, 2021. Since 1992, Russia Day is annually celebrated on 12 June as the Russian Federation's national holiday. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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US President Joe Biden is currently on a whirlwind trip to Europe. After attending the G7 meeting in the UK, he is scheduled to hold discussions with EU and Nato leaders. He will then proceed towards Geneva, where he is due to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The primary objective of Wednesday's US-Russia summit is for the two powers to establish and reinforce red lines with each other and calm tensions.

No significant breakthrough is expected. Bearing in mind the fact it has been scheduled for only a few hours – rather than a few days – it is a meeting essentially to repair the impression, via a photo op, that all is not well between the two countries. There will neither be a draft communique after it, nor a joint news conference involving the leaders.

Moscow, it is said, sought to insert a paragraph in the proposed joint statement that affirmed respect for the principle of non-interference in each other's internal affairs. This could be the reason for the US to reject the text. After all, the EU-US summit a day earlier is not expected to issue praise for the Kremlin, whether on Russia's domestic affairs or the political crises in Ukraine and Belarus.

Mr Biden has been critical of Russia's human rights record, with his administration seeking to press Moscow over the fate of Alexei Navalny, the jailed dissident. The US and EU may even impose additional sanctions on the Kremlin, in response to a Russian court's recent ruling to outlaw Navalny's political organisations.

Then there is the issue of Ukraine, a part of which is under the control of Russian-backed forces. With the crisis right on Europe’s border, Ukraine’s security has become a matter of concern for the West. While the Biden administration may consider what it sees as Russian interference in Ukraine as a red line, the US president will be mindful of Mr Putin’s own red line regarding Russia's neighbour: its possible admission into Nato, a US-led security alliance created after the Second World War as a bulwark against the erstwhile Soviet Union.

The West’s rhetoric of “hostility” towards Russia is no doubt set to intensify, but if Mr Biden’s recent remarks are anything to go by, there will be no decision to invite Ukraine to Nato. Indeed, the president has so far only hinted at opening the door to Ukraine and nothing more.

Mr Putin’s red lines are likely to be in the realm of security.

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, gestures to Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, as they arrive for the 'family photo' on the first day of the Group of Seven leaders summit in Carbis Bay, U.K., on Friday, June 11, 2021. U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson will give leaders a beachside welcome, formally kicking off three days of summitry along the English coast after meeting U.S. President Joe Biden for the first time on Thursday. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

He and Mr Biden are both keen to discuss cyber security, especially in the context of recent cyber attacks inside the US, but they have a completely different approach to this issue. Moscow also hopes to discuss disarmament issues and resolving the current diplomatic standoff that has seen consulates shut down and diplomats expelled from both countries. The two sides will likely seek to reach an agreement on joint measures to stabilise Afghanistan.

The two leaders may even discuss a rising China. It won’t be a stretch to expect Mr Biden to try and dissuade Mr Putin from building closer ties between Moscow and Beijing. The Kremlin’s response to such a proposal might be that Russia will continue its strategic co-operation with China without necessarily increasing military co-operation. It is worth pointing out that the two countries have a joint air defence network in place.

Experts focused on the changing US-China relations fear the eruption of a “localised” military showdown between the two powers, specifically near Taiwan, which Beijing has insisted for decades must be integrated with mainland China. The US, however, is currently focused on stepping up pressure on China in the technological and economic spheres. On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives approved a $250 billion budget to counter China’s technological ambitions. Mr Biden, who approves of the bill, has made US-China competition a cornerstone of his visit to Europe, working to close western ranks against Beijing. It’s hard to imagine this won’t be a talking point in Geneva, too.

Iran's nuclear weapons programme will also be in the mix. Talks are under way in Vienna involving Iran and global powers including the US and Russia, with the purpose of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that the previous Trump administration pulled the US out of.

The terms and conditions are likely to be discussed in Geneva, including the nature of the sanctions that Washington is reluctant to lift against Tehran, namely military sanctions. Moscow wants them so that it can then secure arms deals with the Iranian regime. The two leaders are unlikely to reach a deal on this issue just yet, but the keenness shown by American and Russian negotiators to ensure that the Vienna talks succeed will, no doubt, have implications for the summit.

It will depend on what the negotiators will accomplish in Vienna on Tuesday, a day before the summit. It is widely expected that a general deal will be reached, sending a signal that everything is moving in the right direction, but without agreeing on a final solution.

The reason for this is simple: the Biden administration is unwilling to lift military sanctions, while Tehran is adamant about having all sanctions lifted. Given that these crucial details cannot be papered over, the parties will probably agree to delay a final agreement until they can work out the details. This means there won't be a deal before the Iranian presidential election in a week's time.

A worker prepares a campaign banner of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a print shop in the Iranian capital Tehran on June 7, 2021. Iranians are set to elect a successor to President Hassan Rouhani on June 18 amid widespread discontent over a deep economic and social crisis caused by the reimposition of crippling sanctions after the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. / AFP / ATTA KENARE
A little cordiality in a time of hostility is useful for both the US and Russia

Some regional issues are likely to be discussed in Geneva, including additional security guarantees for Israel that Mr Biden will want Mr Putin to be part of. This will require Russia to not only leverage its relations with Iran to rein in its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also restrain the various players operating inside war-torn Syria that Israel views to be threats to its security, notably the Moscow-backed Syrian forces, the Iranians and Hezbollah.

Mr Putin is likely to agree to this request but for it to materialise, Tehran will need to co-operate. Will the regime be willing to do so? It is unlikely, as it seeks a comprehensive nuclear deal with the global powers and the lifting of sanctions.

Given the obvious challenges to resolve the aforementioned issues, it is more likely that the Biden-Putin summit will serve as a platform for the leaders to exchange views and remind each other of their red lines than to reach any meaningful settlements. But a little cordiality in a time of hostility is useful for both sides. This is precisely why both leaders have insisted on holding a summit, no matter how uninspiring it might end up being.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National