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The Biden-Putin Meeting: Now comes the hard part

The meeting between Joe Biden, President of the United States (US), and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, is finally behind us. Much of the commentary, especially in the US has been breathless, with media outlets pitting the two leaders against each other as if they were in a boxing ring. Although the meeting was on the heels of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit in Brussels, it received far more fanfare. Yet both sides, reasonably, sought to manage expectations as much as possible, downplaying any possibility of a major breakthrough. After all, the relations between the two countries are fraught with tension over a wide set of issues: Ukraine, Syria, arms control, cyber security, the Arctic, human rights, and so forth.

Biden appears to have done well even amid low expectations. Many critics, including the present author, questioned the value of such a meeting, not least because the US president appeared to be much more accommodating (on Nord Stream II, for instance) than Putin even though a meeting with the US president has tremendous prestige. Still, Biden evidently used the occasion to communicate clearly US interests and red lines, with the symbolic bonus of Putin being punctual

Biden and Putin made at least three cooperative steps. The first was the pledge by both leaders to return their ambassadors to each other’s capitals. This pledge surprised almost no one: their embassies have been running on small numbers of staff following a series of tit-for-tat measures earlier this year. By restoring the ambassadors and embassy staff to their proper assignments, the two countries have reopened lines of communication. 

The second cooperative step was in the area of cybersecurity. Biden explained directly to Putin that sixteen types of critical infrastructure, as designated by the US Department of Homeland Security, are ‘off-limits’ to destructive hackings. Though Putin denied Russian culpability for hostile cyber operations, a dubious claim since so-called ‘patriotic hackers’ often enjoy tacit support and shelter from the Kremlin, he agreed to launch bilateral consultations on cybersecurity.

The third cooperative step centred on nuclear arms control. Released shortly after the meeting, the US-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability reaffirmed ‘the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’ More practically, it announced the Strategic Stability Dialogue – to be launched later this year – that will ‘lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.’

Neither of these latter two issue-areas lend themselves easily to meaningful cooperation, especially amid such distrust as that which the US and Russia have for each other. Though Putin may very well do away with those ‘patriotic hackers’ and other cybercriminals who engage in ransomware attacks for now, other hostile cyber operations – like those that spread disinformation, target electoral processes, or engage in espionage like SolarWinds – are more difficult to curb precisely because they either are cheap and can be used opportunistically, or are integral to the Kremlin’s national security strategy. The sixteen sectors of critical infrastructure are sufficiently broad, and cover many tempting targets. Besides, Barack Obama and Putin had launched a bilateral working group on cyber security in the past in 2013. That initiative obviously became largely dormant following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the 2016 Democratic National Convention hacks. 

Optimism about the Strategic Stability Dialogue also ought to be tempered. It is all fine and good for Russia to repudiate nuclear war in writing. However, its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons is far in excess of what is necessary for deterrence. Its nuclear doctrine is sufficiently ambiguous that the controversial notion that it has an escalate-to-deescalate doctrine (using or threatening the use of nuclear weapons early in a crisis, even one provoked by Russia, to terminate it on favourable terms) cannot be dismissed too easily. Besides, Russia has been investing in new nuclear capabilities of dubious purpose. Its nuclear modernization has indeed outpaced that of the US, with the testing and deployment of the 9M729 bringing about the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. 

In either of these two areas, cyber and nuclear, Russia has been building up certain capabilities to extract some sort of strategic advantage from the US and its allies. Will it really be ceding these advantages? Can it credibly commit to forego those investments? Even Biden acknowledged, rightly, he was not confident in Putin changing his behaviour. And indeed, other issues like Ukraine will continue to prove intractable.

For the United Kingdom (UK) and its European NATO allies, not much actually changes. No grand bargain was struck. For all the attention showered upon the Biden-Putin meeting, the NATO summit proved to be of much more substance, not least because of the amount of detail and depth that characterised its Communiqué. That said, now that Biden has expressed in person his account of US interests and red lines to Putin, it remains to be seen how his administration will react if Putin tests him directly. 

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo.

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