For Biden and Putin, Geneva was a transit point – not the destination

US and Russian leaders have laid the foundation to better manage relations and identify areas of co-operation

FILE - In this June 16, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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Last week's US-Russia summit in Geneva proceeded exactly as it had been planned by the two governments.

There were no surprises. There were no confrontations between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, either. Both leaders showed tact: they were firm on some matters and flexible on others. And hours later, they left the summit without compromising on their redlines.

Other notable achievements included a freeze on the long-running diplomatic spat between the two countries by reopening consulates and restoring ambassadors. They also agreed, in principle, on the need to reach an accord in the future to resolve disagreements.

Mr Biden left the summit being able to boast that he told Mr Putin to respect the rules. Mr Putin left the summit being able to showcase Russia as a heavyweight – a great power reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union. He also portrayed himself as a key international player who meets the president of the United States on an equal footing.

In form, the summit brought together the leaders of two great powers. In practice, it was just an introductory meeting that achieved no radical shift in relations.

The leaders did not negotiate with each other – that will be the work of officials representing the two countries' ministries, if it happens – and perhaps this is the most important breakthrough at the summit. Both leaders identified each other's red lines and issues ranging from security to climate change for future working groups to negotiate on.

In short, they agreed that their conversation is to be continued. Indeed, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the room, the two leaders spent three hours working on delineating what is negotiable and what is not.

From the Russian point of view, Mr Biden had gone too far in criticising Russia's human rights issues, in particular the case of the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny in the run-up to the summit. However, the US delegation had made it clear that human rights were a much more important issue for Mr Biden than nuclear warheads.

It was clear from the get-go that, to prevent Mr Putin from seizing the initiative, the Biden administration had brilliantly choreographed the summit. It had refused to set an agenda, opposed a joint news conference and ended the meeting after only four hours, even though Moscow had sought an additional hour.

But tact is one thing and trust is another, and the summit proved the Biden administration does not trust the Kremlin. It continues to blame Moscow for what it sees as Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election that helped put Donald Trump, a Republican, in the White House by beating Mr Biden's fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, the Biden team is keen to prevent confrontation and explore areas of mutual understanding, both bilaterally and on international issues.

The two presidents did not discuss the issue of China in depth, particularly as the Nato summit and the EU-US summit, held just days before the Geneva meeting, had already made clear the West’s position vis-a-vis the rising Asian power.

They did talk about Iran and Syria, however.

Mr Biden suggested that a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran was possible – but that a deliberate ignorance of its regional behaviour was not. Mr Biden told Mr Putin the US would not lift all sanctions on Tehran until it changed its expansionist foreign policy in the Middle East.

The Biden administration is willing to lift more sanctions on Iran, especially on its oil sector, but is unwilling to lift the military embargo that would enable Iran to sign arms deals – as long as Tehran continues what the Biden administration terms as “malign” regional activities. It is worth noting, of course, that Moscow’s interests are better served if Washington lifts the military sanctions first, given the huge arms deals it hopes to conclude with Tehran.

Mr Biden, meanwhile, has made it clear that the US has no plan to relinquish its interests in Syria. He added his administration is ready to discuss the war-torn country's future on this basis. This is important, although it is yet unclear where the two sides meet on the issue.

Joey Hood, the Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, has told me that the US could strike a deal with Russia over the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria. He added that it could be the way in for the Biden administration to assert itself over the issue of that country’s political future.

“If we come together on the humanitarian aspect, maybe we may progress on the political aspect as well,” Mr Hood said. “President Putin has been very clear many times over the years that he’s not particularly dedicated to [Syrian President] Bashar [Al Assad] himself as a person, but he doesn’t want to see more chaos in Syria. I think we share that goal of not wanting to see further chaos and suffering.”

The point, according to Mr Hood, is to establish a new constitution and a new government that is truly representative of the Syrian people and then “maybe we can see ways in which Russia and American interests in Syria are both advanced through this political process”.

However, Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Russian Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, has a different view. Russia, according to him, will seek the recognition of Mr Al Assad as the legitimate leader of post-war Syria – something the US is likely to oppose.

Mr Lukyanov struck a more positive note about US-Russia relations being a matter of priority for Moscow – ahead of the Iran nuclear deal. Russia and Iran, he said, have “extensively different interests even in Syria, where they are allies”. For US-Russia relations to improve, he said, the two governments need to form working groups to review a range of issues.

I have to point out, though, that fundamental differences between the two sides stem from divergences in doctrines and systems of government. Mr Biden, it seems, seeks to be an advocate for human rights and democracy with a view to weaken theocratic and fundamentalist regimes, such as Iran’s.

How the US and Russia work around their ideological differences remains to be seen in the years to come. But the Geneva summit represents a promising resumption in their relations.

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