In March, US President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “murderer” and today he is meeting with him in Geneva (Switzerland) because in international relations you have to talk to the devil. The two leaders have started this bilateral summit in what is the last stop of Joe Biden’s European tour and his most complicated meeting, in which it will be difficult to gauge whether we are talking about a success or a failure or perhaps both at the same time.
The two leaders have already entered the Villa Grange, an 18th century mansion whose doors have been locked. After being welcomed by the President of the Swiss Federation, Guy Parmelin, the two leaders shook hands for a few seconds in front of the journalists’ flashbulbs, without making any statements.
Russia and the United States are going through their most turbulent period since the Cold War and the end of the former Soviet Union. In this meeting, held at Biden’s request, Washington is trying to restore a minimum of normality in relations with the Kremlin, bearing in mind that in the uncertain international chessboard of the 21st century it is necessary to play with several decks of cards and have many rabbits in the hat. This is the first confrontation between Biden and Putin since the former occupied the Oval Office and the first US-Russia summit since the Russian leader met with Donald Trump in Helsinki in July 2018.
On the agenda, many open fronts. The two leaders are scheduled to discuss the fight against climate change, Moscow’s role in the conflicts in Syria and Libya and the agreement with Iran, among other issues.
Biden comes to this meeting with his homework done after his trip to Brussels and London has won the acquiescence of European partners in standing up to the authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow. But this may not be enough. Relations between the West and Putin have deteriorated in recent months following the attempted poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of opposition figure Alexei Navalni and the Kremlin’s role in giving oxygen to Europe’s longest-serving dictator, Belarusian President Aleksandre Lukashenko. Russia is suspected of aiding or at least being an accomplice in the hijacking of Belarusian opposition leader Roman Protasevich, whose flight from Greece was diverted and forced to land in Minsk, where he was arrested.
Among the more contentious issues, the two leaders will address the cyber-attacks that have affected nine U.S. federal agencies and numerous private companies. These attacks have jeopardized supplies in strategic sectors as they have targeted the Colonial Pipeline Co pipeline and the JBS meatpacking company. Washington suspects that Moscow is behind the offensive. It has even managed to get NATO partners in the document approved this past Monday to include certain cyberattacks in the same category as armed aggression. This opens the door to the possibility that such an attack could trigger the activation of the Alliance’s collective defense clause whereby an attack on one of the members constitutes an attack on the military organization as a whole, the famous Article 5. The only time this clause has been invoked was after the terrorist attack of 9/11.
Whatever happens, there will be no joint press conference today at the express wish of Biden, who wants to avoid any minimal agreement being overshadowed by a possible slip-up in front of the international press.