The grinning sepia and gray face of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni watches the traffic on rue de Lyon in central Geneva. Graffiti in tribute to the dissident has sprouted this week on a wall in the Swiss city, in time for Wednesday’s summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and American Joe Biden. With the motto “the hero of our time”, it imitates another painted in Saint Petersburg a few months ago that the Russian authorities promptly erased; as they are trying to do with extreme harshness with any critical voice against the Kremlin. The Navalni case, imprisoned in Russia since January, the repression of the Russian opposition, human rights and Moscow’s interference are one of the points of greatest friction in the historic meeting between world leaders at a time when relations between the Kremlin and the White House are going through their worst moment since the Cold War.
Old acquaintances from the time when Biden was vice president in the Barack Obama administration and Putin, prime minister, the relationship between the leaders is extremely strained. Both will use the Geneva summit to mark their role on the world geopolitical chessboard. But neither of the two administrations believes that powerful agreements will emerge from the Geneva meeting. The objective is, they agree, to unfreeze the dialogue. Global warming, nuclear stability, the situation of several Russian and American citizens imprisoned in the opposite country and cybersecurity are some of the big issues on the summit’s agenda, a Kremlin aide explained on Tuesday. Perhaps one of the few in which they can find a hint of a common tone. Russian intervention in Syria and Libya will also be on the table. The list of hot and contentious issues is long and substantial.
And the Kremlin has been marking its red lines for months regardless of the threat of further sanctions, international criticism or isolation. Last week, on the eve of the summit, it once again showed one of the most blunt when the Russian justice declared “extremist organizations” to the anti-corruption foundation and the Navalni political movement; a label that deals the last blow to the opposition group, eliminating it at a stroke from any map of Russian politics, and that can cost its allies, supporters and even its donors not only severe fines but even ten years in prison. The case of Navalni, branded a CIA collaborator by the Kremlin and serving two and a half years in prison in a severe Russian prison, and his poisoning this summer in Siberia after which the West sees the Kremlin’s hand, has deteriorated even more US and EU relations with Moscow. And it’s important to Biden.
Putin and Biden will deal with other tough issues for Washington, such as cyberattacks at the heart of the US Administration – including nine federal agencies – and more than a hundred private companies. A hack This mass was first detected last December for which the White House blames Russia, in particular its foreign intelligence service (SVR). A case that adds to the accusations of interference in the 2020 presidential elections and other episodes of cyber attacks that are falling like a trickle: some of the last, against one of the largest meat companies in the world and a commercial oil pipeline, which it wreaked havoc on the fuel supply. The Biden Administration has not officially and directly attributed these latest attacks to the Kremlin, although it insists that Moscow is home to “criminals of ransomware”(Who steal information or data and demand a ransom).
On Sunday, in an interview on Russian state television, Putin noted that security “cooperation” could be one of the points in common with his American counterpart. He also assured that Moscow would be willing to extradite cybercriminals to the United States under an appropriate bilateral agreement, provided Washington did the same. Biden said he could agree to the proposal, although the United States has been very cautious so far in establishing any cooperation with Russia on cyberspace issues, to try to put the accent on cyber criminal activities linked to Moscow. But the Kremlin, which dismisses all the accusations as “nonsense”, is not overly concerned about being singled out, remarks analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, from the R.Politik consultancy.
Also the illegal Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula – seven years ago – and the support of the Kremlin to the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas war, in addition to the latest movements of Russian troops towards the borders of Ukraine, which have worried so much NATO, will be on the table. And Moscow’s appetite to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space, such as in Belarus, where Putin’s support for authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko during the democracy protests unleashed last summer has been critical to his stay in power.
The Geneva summit – which hosts the dialogue between American and Russian leaders for the third time in history – will be Putin’s first official trip abroad since the coronavirus health crisis broke out last year. The Russian leader has spent most of the pandemic telecommuting from one of his residences and has limited his contacts to the maximum. It is the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Biden – which comes stomping after a week of intense meetings with the leaders of the G-7 (which used to be G-8, until Russia was expelled in 2014 after annexing Crimea). , NATO and the EU – took office in the White House.
The episodes of discord between Moscow and Washington have occurred in recent months, with the culmination last March when Biden, in an interview, answered affirmatively to the question of whether he considers Putin a murderer. The Russian leader, sarcastically, later replied on Russian state television with a saying that concludes that ‘he who says it is’; and then he wished 78-year-old Biden (Putin is ten years younger), “good health.”
The talks start from the lowest point in relations between the two countries since they established ties in 1933. Or at least, points out the professor of Law at the Higher School of Economics and expert in relations with the US Alexander Domrin, the lowest point “Since Reagan declared the USSR an ‘Empire of Evil’ in 1983”. Domrin, who argues that Biden arrives not as a national leader but as a “collective West”, believes that there is “no point of contact” between the two administrations although, like other analysts, points out that they will try to build on some “practical cases” . “The proposal for the meeting came from Biden,” emphasizes the expert. Putin accepts it because to be heard you must first speak. And if you talk to someone, then you need to talk to the ‘big boys’ ”.
Washington, which has expanded sanctions against Moscow and people from Putin’s close circle, this time for electoral interference and cyberattacks, has harshly criticized the Eurasian country for its increasingly authoritarian drift. Russia has officially declared the United States a “hostile country.” And both countries have exchanged a large package of diplomatic expulsions. Today, their respective ambassadors are at home. Although his return could be one of the results of the summit.
Also, sources from the Russian Government point out, that the way is opened for a separate agreement to an exchange of prisoners. Two former US Marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, are serving sentences in Russia; meanwhile, Moscow could have an interest in freeing the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (known as “the merchant of death”), sentenced to 25 years in prison by the US justice system.
This Tuesday, a day before the meeting, in what could be a tenuous signal of opening towards the discussion with Washington, Moscow eliminated from the list of people wanted by the security forces the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tijanóvskaya, persecuted by the Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime.
180 degree turn from Trump
Biden will mark a 180-degree turn from the summit that Donald Trump held with Putin in July 2018. The Republican, who appeared before the press alongside the Russian president, aroused outrage in the Republican ranks themselves by giving the Kremlin the same credibility as to US intelligence services and his own government regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. “Many say they believe it is Russia. President Putin says it is not Russia. I will say this: I see no reason why it should be this way. I want to see the server. I have confidence on both sides, ”Trump said.
The conflicts between the United States and Russia had remained active throughout his term, the sanctions for different cyberattacks, for electoral interference and Washington’s position on the illegal annexation of Crimea. However, the president expressed an unusual cordiality towards Putin that aroused great misgivings, given that this operation of political interference attributed to Moscow. Trump went so far as to publicly criticize the penalties that the United States Congress forced him to sign.
With Biden in the White House there is no dissociation between the president and his Administration. The democrat, to begin with, will not appear before the press alongside the Russian leader. He wants to avoid, in his own words a few days ago, “a contest about who does better in front of the media or to embarrass each other.” The president feels a special personal aversion to Putin, a former KGB agent, forged since he treated him as vice president of the Obama Administration (2009-2017).
The fruits that this summit can bear are not clear. Putin has been very skeptical. Biden has also not made public what scale he will use to assess what has been a success or a failure of the meeting. On Monday, at the conclusion of the NATO summit in Brussels, he limited himself to saying: “I am going to make it clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he wants. If you choose not to cooperate and act as you have in the past, in relation to cybersecurity and other activities, we will respond. ” In the areas where they disagree, he said, he will mark “the red lines.” The Russian leader, he admitted, “is brilliant, he is tough.” “He is, as they say in sports, a worthy opponent,” he added.