‘Reset’ is often the term used to describe a fresh start in diplomatic relations. After a tumultuous period for US-Russia relations it seemed particularly significant that President Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva during his first foreign presidential trip in June.
The meeting followed the G7 Summit in Cornwall – the first face-to-face gathering of major world leaders since the start of the pandemic – and the NATO Summit in Brussels. It also came in the wake of escalating Western sanctions against Russia for egregious human rights violations, namely the poisoning and detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
It was the first time the two nations’ presidents had met since June 2018. Sir Tony Brenton, who served as UK Ambassador to Moscow from 2004-2008, believes the discussions were largely fruitful. ‘You have to allow for the fact that there are always going to be really quite sharp disagreements, with the West criticising Russia’s domestic behaviour and some of Russia’s external behaviour,’ Brenton tells Global Insight. ‘Conversely, Russia has now found it in itself to criticise what’s going on in America. But both sides set out their positions and, usefully, both sides made clear their red lines. They agreed to talk further on actually the two most important things that they have to talk about: strategic nuclear weapons and cyber.’
In light of ongoing allegations of Russia’s interference in foreign elections and complicity in major cyber-attacks, Brenton says dialogue on these issues is a significant step forward for the two countries. ‘I’ve been arguing that they should do this for years because cyber has been at the core of accusations of intrusion by both sides against the other,’ he says. ‘I think it was a very useful start.’
James Lamond, Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and an expert on US-Russia relations, views the meeting as an attempt by the Biden administration to ‘lower the temperature’ between the two nations. ‘Let’s look at the timing of when the meeting was offered,’ he says. ‘Tensions were extremely high; Russia was amassing troops at the border with Ukraine; diplomatic relations were plummeting and Navalny was just coming out of his food strike. It was not a “reset” and not even to normalise relations, but to re-establish communication so that we can have that kind of line of communication amongst the two countries.’
Moreover, the US government’s renewed focus on deescalating tensions with Russia is part and parcel of its broader foreign policy objective to keep China in check, says Brenton. ‘America is far more concerned about making progress in dealing with China than it is about Russia,’ he says. ‘Russia is an irritation. China is a very direct challenge. This was a means of cooling down the Russian situation so that the United States could control focus on China and also, to an extent, opening up opportunities to edge Russia a bit further outside of the Chinese orbit. That’s not going to be possible totally, but even a little move by Russia away from total subservience to China would be beneficial from the United States’ point of view. It looks at China as its major adversary.’
However, Lamond cautions against underestimating Russia’s powerful role as a ‘spoiler’ on the world stage. ‘They have an incredibly powerful intelligence apparatus that they’ve invested in, they have a powerful military…and the most powerful tool they have is that Putin has demonstrated a willingness to push the envelope and see how far he can go.’ Lamond says the real test is what happens next: ‘We need to have the relationship now. The question is what happens when Putin crosses that red line – which we know will happen – and how will the Biden administration enforce it.’
As Biden and Putin met in Geneva, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were also making efforts to reduce EU-Russia tensions by calling on the other 25 members of the bloc to pursue a policy of closer engagement with the Kremlin.
Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, says the EU has taken a hard line on Russian sanctions since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which ultimately led to the country’s exclusion from the coveted G8. However, she believes Russia’s economic ties to the EU have clouded the bloc’s judgement. ‘The consequence of this reality is that economic considerations become more important than political reasons to impose real economic sanctions,’ says Ramberg. ‘The EU and Russia remain closely interdependent, and the EU applies a very selective engagement approach.’
As US foreign policy focuses increasingly on China, Brenton believes the EU will be under growing pressure to keep the peace in its own back yard. ‘The United States would like to see Europe take on much more responsibility for security in its own region,’ he says.
This policy was tested recently when a plane carrying a Belarusian opposition journalist and his Russian girlfriend was grounded on 23 May. The plane’s forced diversion prompted EU leaders to join forces with the US, UK, and Canada on 21 June to issue new sanctions against the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. ‘The United States have said the right things and participate in the right sanctions,’ says Brenton, ‘but they are looking to Europe to take the lead on dealing with the problem that Belarus constitutes.’
Ramberg is a firm believer in dialogue but says governments must make tough choices to ensure rogue states uphold the rule of law. ‘It is an obligation to act when international law is neglected and human rights are not respected,’ she says. ‘The EU should not be bystanders watching violations.’ – International Bar Association (IBA)