Facing Putin, Biden not only looking to distance himself from Trump

The first months of Joe Biden’s relationship with Vladimir Putin were fraught with tension. But the American president seems to want to remedy it, on certain points.

Friends, enemies or seasoned diplomats? By meeting Vladimir Poutine in Geneva, Joe Biden finds himself face to face with what he half-worded as a “killer” , before starting a process of de-escalation, the first stage of which takes place on Wednesday, June 16.  

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin know each other well having held almost parallel positions at about the same time: in 2009, when Joe Biden became Barack Obama’s vice-president, Putin apparently let go of power to become head of government. by Dmitry Medvedev.

Ten years later, they are back on an equal footing: presidents of two powers who have had a cyclothymic relationship since the end of the Cold War. The first six months of their relations did not reflect anything else: biting exchanges, accusations of violation of human rights, all strewn with proposals for dialogue which ultimately ended in Geneva. 

Biden, the man of “at the same time” against Putin

Between Joe Biden VP and Joe Biden president, there was Donald Trump. Which has regularly been accused of playing into the Kremlin’s game, because of accusations of Russian interference in his favor in 2016. “I like Putin, he likes me. We get along well ”, he said again in September 2020 during a campaign speech. 

In reclaiming the Oval Office, Joe Biden took a completely different approach, in part to set himself apart from the 45th US President. “I made it clear to President Putin, in a very different way from my predecessor, that the time when the United States submitted to aggressive Russian acts (…) is over,” he warned less. ‘one month after taking office. 

But his willingness to break up with Trump is not the only factor explaining Biden’s relationship with Putin. “Joe Biden acts differently compared to other presidents and I think it is linked to his personality: he has two personalities in one”, analysis for The HuffPost Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, director of the Russia / NIS Center at Ifri. A veteran of American politics, Joe Biden has experience of the Cold War. He also has that of vice-president of Obama, at the time when this one tried (in vain) to set out again on new bases with Russia.

Result of this contrasting addition: “a dual policy, where there are both sticks and carrots”. To consider Vladimir Putin as a “killer” is certainly a blow with the baton – even if the American president did not dare, on the eve of the meeting, to reiterate the affirmation . The extension as soon as it takes office of the New START treaty (treaty for the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons, which entered into force in 2011 between the United States and Russia, Editor’s note) tastes like the carrot. 

Joe Biden “ has more leeway vis-à-vis Russia than Donald Trump. He is not at risk of being accused of being Putin’s accomplice and playing his game. So even if he makes what would have been considered a concession for Trump, for Biden it will be seen as a more nuanced policy ” , details Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean.

Possible options and “red lines”

Against all expectations, there could indeed be nuance in some discussions between Joe Biden and Vladimir Poutin.

The list of subjects that leaders could tackle is long: war against cybercrime, arms control (the famous “arms control ”), climate, the Arctic but also Afghanistan, Alexeï Navalny or Ukraine …. At the end of May, the Maison Blanche said without further clarification that “the full range of problems facing the United States and Russia” would be addressed.

Among these problems, others will be easier to tackle than others. For example “strategic stability, ‘arms control’ which are legacies of the Cold War. Thereupon Biden shows the openness ”, explains Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean.

There are very complicated regional issues, but which could give rise to “interesting” discussions: the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan for example, or even the very thorny issue of Iranian nuclear power in which Joe Biden has promised to return. 

But there are also the subjects which annoy. Monday June 14 on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Joe Biden promised to tell his Russian counterpart Vladimir Poutine what are “his red lines”. And to evoke in the wake of the two main accusations made to Russia of human rights violations: the case of Alexeï Navalny whose death “would only damage relations with the rest of the world, and with me. ”And the“ aggression ”of Ukraine.

However, on these two burning issues, “no positive progress is possible,” says Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean. 

Pragmatism obliges

On Navalny as on Ukraine,  Vladimir Putin should remain true to himself and dismiss Joe Biden to a very firm and more or less polite dismissal. 

The American president, who “knows quite well” Vladimir Poutine, is probably already expecting it. But because he has taken up the torch of the United States, shield of the world, of democracy and of human rights, he will hardly be able to ignore the subject: “He is obliged to mark the occasion. He  must tackle these subjects, otherwise he takes risks for his return to Washington in the face of Congress and American public opinion ”, particularly revolted by the fate of the number 1 opponent of Vladimir Poutine, explains our expert. “T he two leaders have an interest in being pragmatic and in taking uncompromising positions on certain subjects, while initiating a process of negotiation on others.”

At the end of this summit, neither side expects a shocking declaration. Moreover, there will not be a joint press conference, but two separate ones, each on their own. “I see this meeting with practical but weak optimism. This is a first meeting in difficult conditions ”, commented Tuesday, June 15 the adviser for foreign affairs of the Russian president. A “starting point”, summarizes Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, who will also be useful to everyone in their internal policy.

For Vladimir Putin, this  will be an opportunity to reaffirm his policy, both internal and external, in the face of the Russians and the world. “A way of showing that the policy he is pursuing is the right one”, summarizes the director of the Russia / NIS Center.

For Joe Biden, the stakes are greater: to stand out from Trump, to clarify his position vis-à-vis the Kremlin, and also, in a more subtle way perhaps, to titillate Beijing, which maintains its own relations with Moscow. Beijing, which has become the main concern of the US administration and which Joe Biden has repeatedly attacked during his European tour.  

Still, to judge the atmosphere of the summit and the somewhat clear or still gloomy future between the two powers, observers will have a cursor: the return of Russian and American ambassadors, recalled in the midst of rising tensions between their bosses, would be a positive signal. At least in the short term.

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