Wednesday’s summit meeting in Geneva between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be a time of testing for both leaders. Mr. Putin has several advantages. Four years of Donald Trump weakened the political and moral authority of the United States and the U.S. presidency. Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his bizarre summit meetings with Mr. Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un raised serious questions about U.S. capabilities. The U.S. retreat from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear accord and the World Health Organization ceded the high ground to Mr. Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Mr. Trump’s one-sided support for Israel allowed Russia and China to improve their standing in the Middle East.
Neither Mr. Biden nor his three predecessors (Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump) have made headway in pursuing a stronger stance toward Russia. The United States has focused on a strategic relationship with Ukraine to intimidate Russia. This has been counterproductive. European leaders, particularly France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, have had no success in persuading the United States that Ukraine is a “red line” for Russia and that Mr. Putin will not tolerate Ukrainian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Biden administration stubbornly insists on strengthening military ties to Ukraine and referring to a “strategic relationship” with Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Mr. Putin may well favor a more predictable relationship with the United States, which would provide diplomatic openings for Mr. Biden if he chooses a negotiable path. If the issues of election interference and cybersecurity dominate the discussions, then the outcome will be problematic. There is a more conciliatory path if the United States takes the lead in reducing the acrimony over Ukraine and addressing the stalemate on arms control and disarmament.
The Ukraine issue would not be a roadblock if we were to inform Moscow that the United States is seeking improved bilateral relations with Ukraine, but not Kiev’s membership in NATO. U.S. administrations are primarily responsible for the tension between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine. Mr. Bill Clinton’s process of NATO enlargement was a betrayal of U.S. guarantees that it would not “leapfrog” over a reunited Germany to gain influence in the East European countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact.
The arms control issue is more complicated, but it offers the best opportunity to stop the worsening of Russian-American relations. Disarmament, after all, was the key to Soviet-American detente, which ended the Cold War between the so-called superpowers.
Mr. Trump, however, ended the disarmament dialogue with Russia and withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden criticized Mr. Trump for leaving the Open Skies Treaty and for “doubling down on his shortsighted policy of going it alone and abandoning American leadership.” As president, however, Mr. Biden quickly decided that the United States would not return to the Open Skies Treaty.
The United States should abandon the idea of national missile defense, which is an obstacle to significant cuts in strategic weapons. Biden’s National Security Council, which lacks an authoritative disarmament specialist, has pointed to “strategic stability” as the most important item on the summit agenda, so arms control and disarmament could provide a diplomatic opportunity.
Russian leaders have been defensive in dealing with Washington because U.S. presidents in the post-World War Two era have tried to isolate Moscow. The policy of containment was designed to do just that. The U.S. notion during the Cold War, which still exists in right-wing circles, that the Kremlin has a master plan for advancing in the international arena, was a central tenet in academic circles for decades. The U.S. intelligence community contributed to this view, arguing that Soviet leaders believed that the “correlation of forces” was favorable to Moscow and unfavorable to Washington. These views and the exaggeration of the Soviet threat persisted in academic and intelligence communities right up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mr. Putin has several geopolitical advantages in talks with a U.S. president. The Western alliance is no longer single-minded on the issue of the Russian threat. Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel believe that Washington has been hyping the Russian threat, and West European governments are more sanguine about dealing with Moscow than their East European “allies.”
Moreover, Mr. Putin has created a strong relationship with China and, unlike previous Russian leaders, is no longer concerned with Washington being able to play a “China card” against Moscow. Nevertheless, Russia’s stagnating economic growth, adverse demographic trends and problems associated with the pandemic could find Mr. Putin willing to pursue improved relations with the United States.
Melvin A. Goodman (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former CIA intelligence analyst, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.