Putin-Biden: the first hit on the ball

For a long time in world politics and in secular life there was no such grandiose show as the meeting of the Russian and American presidents in Geneva on Wednesday.

Mikhail Metzel / POOL
Mikhail Metzel / POOL

1,200 officially registered journalists, 4,000 policemen, tanks, aviation, space communications – everybody was involved for the success of this event… And what are the results? Do they justify the energy and resources spent?

On the purely formal side, such results are not numerous. There are hints of cooperation opportunity in strengthening global strategic stability and international cybersecurity, joint steps to strengthen stability in the regions, in particular the Middle East and Afghanistan. The prospect of intra-Ukrainian crisis settlement was discussed.

That, by and large, is it. Was it worth organizing a resonant and, incidentally, expensive event for all this? After all, in order to agree to the mutual return of ambassadors to the duty station in Washington and Moscow, as well as to hold consultations on the exchange of prisoners, it was enough to hold half-hour video conversation.

What, then, is the real significance of the Geneva Summit? When it comes to such meetings, the fact that they are carried out is sometimes much more important than the content of negotiations, including signed and unsigned documents. In this case, of course, the world community expected a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden as a symbol, a hint of the possibility of establishing cooperation between the two main nuclear powers of our time. From this perspective, the Geneva Summit perhaps made sense — and bore certain fruits.

But Biden hardly went to Geneva for this. One could easily foresee that “crushing” on Putin, as he promised NATO allies on the eve of the meeting, is ungrateful and meaningless task. This applies to all issues on the official agenda of the meeting, including the issue of intra-Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, just on this issue the American president lost, as voluntarily or involuntarily he mentioned the Minsk agreements as the basis for the settlement in the Donbass. That is, in fact, he agreed with the position of Russia. Radical nationalists in Kiev already grew hysterical about this.

With regard to arms control issues, contacts on them will continue in that extent to which both sides are interested in them. It is clear that there will not be a return to the medium and shorter range missile treaty, as well as to the open sky agreement, a decrease in the level of military confrontation with Europe has yet to be discussed; newly re-elected Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un, who does not need re-election, can sleep calmly, and as for the Iranian nuclear issue, it is still under discussion at other sites, where everything, in general, depends on the United States itself and its Israeli partner.

Why then did the American side so persistently seek a summit? In a verbal husks hurricane, like a tornado that collapsed from Geneva on the eve of a meeting at Villa La Grange, one phrase of an American journalist slipped: Biden flies to Geneva with only one goal – to try to somehow drive a wedge into relations between Russia and China, convince the Russian partner that China’s rise is no less dangerous for Russia than for USA.

Here, as they say, where the dog is buried. And that’s why the fact of the meeting is so important, not its formal results. The fact that Biden decided to first meet with Putin, refusing for now meetings with Xi Jinping, speaks for itself. It is possible that in the near future he will attempt to meet with the Chinese leader for the same purpose of provoking caution in relations between Moscow and Beijing. It is no coincidence that Putin resolutely denied this opportunity even before his departure to Geneva in an interview with NBC. Therefore, it is possible to quietly assert that this goal of the Americans in Geneva has not been achieved.

But it is also true that the “shuttle diplomacy” started by Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971, will continue. Forward Biden made the first hit on the ball. But not a single football player has yet scored a goal with the first shot on the ball in the match. More than once American representatives will probe opportunities in this strategic and, actually, most important direction of American foreign policy.

The rules of the political diplomatic game are no less complex than the rules and techniques of the game in football. But, unlike the latter, they do not change so often and are preserved in principle without changes since the time when they were first formulated by King Philip — father of Alexander the Great. Among these rules, one of the first states: when competing in triangle support weaker versus stronger. Subject to this rule, Biden chose the Russian, not the Chinese, leader for the first meeting. Why?

Because, unlike his own propagandists, Biden understands very well that not in in the near, nor in the more distant future, Russia will present no strategic threat to the United States. The plenty of words on human rights and democratic freedoms is needed by American political elite to realize their own aggressive intentions towards our country. But if the pressure from Beijing increases, then this words game will be easily sacrificed for real strategic interests.

But with Beijing, the situation is completely different. Take at least Taiwan’s problem. To cansel Island Security Bill, which obliges the United States to guarantee the “independent status” of this province of China will be much more difficult than throwing Magnitsky’s law into the garbage bin.

And the ideology of the ruling party in China is not a declaration about tolerance and transgender equality, but a very effective worldview, giving, in particular, an understanding of the causes of the gap growth between the revenues of the “golden billion” and the “rest of the world.”

But the most important thing is that very soon China with gross domestic product growth rate about 7% per year will undoubtedly be the leading power on the international arena. And not just economically. Therefore, the most visionary part of the American political elite, and Biden certainly represents it, now seeks to establish contacts with a weaker economically but militarily powerful partner, that is, with Russia.

As China rises, this desire will increase. However, the Americans are a trading nation, politics for them is also bargaining. Already they are hinting at a willingness to offer something to Moscow as bargaining chips – concessions or hints of concessions. Nevertheless, until now hints are limited to steps more beneficial to the United States itself. Take at least the long-suffering Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which the collective West needs more than Russia does, as it records the status of our country as an agricultural and raw material appendage of developed European States. Or the question of extending the Offensive Arms Agreement (OAA) for five years.

Biden accepted this, realizing that in a situation where Russia has made serious progress in the development of its strategic nuclear forces, new OAA III can be more beneficial to Washington, as it gives Americans time to develop its complex of hypersonic missiles. It is possible that some thaw will take place in the issue of cybersecurity, prisoner exchange, lifting restrictions that interfere with the free development of trade between our countries.

So far, it’s all a political bargaining chip. In the future, more serious practical steps can follow. For example, an invitation for Russia to return to G7. Donald Trump was already coy with this idea, but did not meet the understanding of all the partners of the “seven,” and the ” nice fellow” Biden has now a new honeymoon with the same idea after the departure of “Trump The Thunderbolt”.

But the game has just begun… Biden made the first hit on the ball in the center of the field. There are many halves of diplomatic football more ahead. And it is very important to keep your breath, save your strength to end the game. It is especially important to build and calculate your tactics correctly. After all, you need play taking into account the interests of a third partner, a team playing in parallel subgroup. It should be borne in mind that the first place in its subgroup will automatically mean meeting with the Chinese team, which will take first place in the parallel subgroup with more weak players.

Is it not better in this case to let the Americans go ahead? Let them play in the semifinals with Beijing. And we will meet with the Chinese in the final, but not in a dispute for a golden calf with Pax Americana engraving, rather in order to drink with all other teams of the international community from the crystal cup of the democratic polycentric world, in which everyone will have equal and effective, not imaginary, rights and freedoms.

By Vladimir Pryakhin, Member of the Council of the Association of Russian Diplomats, Doctor of Political Science, Professor of the Russian State Humanitarian University, Professor, Department of Diplomacy, MGIMO

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