Is the Biden-Putin Summit Doomed?

President Joe Biden’s advisers had best warn him that a shifting "world correlation of forces" (to borrow an old Soviet term) will form an influential backdrop to the U.S.- Russia summit planned for June 16 in Geneva. While China, of course, will not be taking part in the discussions, it will be very much there.

As the planned summit was announced Tuesday, who happened to be paying a high-profile visit to Moscow but China’s top diplomat, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, who is spending a few days there to conduct "strategic consultations" with Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s National Security adviser. Yes, the same Yang Jiechi who warned Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan not to try to speak to China "in a condescending way" or from a claimed "position of strength" at their acerbic meeting on March 18 in Anchorage.

And, yes, the same Nikolai Patrushev who had an opportunity to size up his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, in Reykjavik on May 19. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Yang Jiechi and Nikolai Patrushev compare notes on how best to approach their US interlocutors.

The symbolism of Yang Jiechi’s Moscow visit, "for the 16th round of strategic security consultations" will be missed only by the most benighted, nostalgic adherents of the dogma of US"indispensability" and "exceptionalism".

Are Biden’s Advisers Even Aware?

Whether or not Official Washington fully appreciates the gradual – but profound – change in America’s triangular relationship with Russia and China over recent decades, what is clear is that the US has made itself into the big loser. The triangle may still be equilateral, but it is now, in effect, two sides against one.

Gone are the days when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger skillfully took advantage of the Sino-Soviet rivalry and played the two countries off against each other, extracting concessions from each. Slowly but surely, the strategic equation has markedly changed – and the Sino-Russian rapprochement signals a tectonic shift to Washington’s distinct detriment, a change largely due to US actions that have pushed the two countries closer together.

There is little sign that today’s US policymakers have enough experience and intelligence to recognize this new reality and understand the important implications for US freedom of action. Still less are they likely to appreciate how this new nexus may play out on the ground, on the sea or in the air.

Instead, the Biden administration – like its predecessors – is behaving with arrogance and a sense of entitlement, firing missiles into Syria, blustering over Ukraine, and dispatching naval forces into the Black Sea and waters near China. Since tension over Taiwan presents the most ominous current flashpoint, I would expect it to be raised by Putin out of concern that Russia’s "strategic partner", China, may find itself in a hot war there, presenting awkward choices for Moscow.

Post-Coup in Ukraine

A revitalized Russia and a modernizing China now represent a counterweight to US hegemony as the world’s unilateral superpower, a development that Washington accelerated with its strategic maneuvers to surround both Russia and China with military bases and adversarial alliances by pressing NATO up to Russia’s borders and now trying to enlist NATO in confronting China.

The U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014, marked a historical breaking point as Russia finally pushed back by approving Crimea’s request for reunification and by giving assistance to ethnic Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who resisted the coup regime in Kiev.

On the global stage, Putin fleshed out the earlier energy deal with China, including a massive 30-year natural gas contract valued at $400 billion. The move helped Putin demonstrate that the West’s post-Ukraine economic sanctions posed little threat to Russia’s financial survival.

As the Russia-China relationship grew closer, the two countries also adopted remarkably congruent positions on international hot spots, including Ukraine and Syria. Military cooperation also increased steadily. Yet, a hubris-tinged consensus in the US government and academe continues to hold that, despite the marked improvement in ties between China and Russia, each retains greater interest in developing good relations with the US than with each other. It is far from clear that Biden’s sophomoric advisers can get it into their elitist heads that things have changed – markedly.

The sports slogan has it that nothing is over "until the fat lady sings," but on this topic, her tones are quite clear. The day of the US playing China and Russia off against each other is no more.

The June Summit

Russian leaders have shown that they welcome the opportunity to meet US presidents face to face and that is a mutual benefit. At this point, barring some kind of miracle, the summit is not likely to yield much in the way of progress in mutual relations.

Indeed, there is risk that the talks could devolve into Anchorage-type acrimony – most likely in private. For example, Putin knows – and may confront Biden – about his promised role (via Sullivan and Nuland) in the Feb. 22, 2014 coup in Kiev, which catalyzed the sharp downturn in US-Russia relations, just five months after Putin wrote (in a New York Times oped) of the growing trust he enjoyed with Obama as the two cooperated to prevent wider war in Syria.

Here’s an excerpt from an intercepted conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland [promoted to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs under Biden] and US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt published by YouTube on Feb. 4, 2014

Nuland: So on that piece Geoff, when I wrote the note [US vice-president’s national security adviser Jake] Sullivan’s come back to me VFR [direct to me], saying you need [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta-boy and to get the deets [details] to stick. So Biden’s willing.

If Putin chooses to play tough, he can also be expected to raise a number of strategic and delicate issues:

  • Your intelligence people no doubt have key telemetry on our test launch of missiles that fly at Mach 8, like the hypersonic cruise missile Zircon, but we can show you the tape if you wish. So, is your ABM industry merely a “jobs program”, as former Ambassador Matlock once suggested? Don’t you have better ways to spend your money? As I pointed out at the time, what a terrible waste!
  • When you and Obama, on Jan. 5, 2017m authorized FBI Director James Comey to do a J-Edgar-Hoover number on Trump the next day, did you not know that the “Steele dossier” was – and is now proven to be – a complete fraud?
  • We know, because we Russians pay close attention to what’s in your media (including alternative media) that the highly-touted-but-fraudulent Jan. 6, 2017 “Intelligence Community Assessment” was not produced by “all 17 US Intel agencies”, nor by just three (CIA, FBI, NSA); nor by “handpicked” analysts from those three. A House Intelligence Committee investigator who has looked closely into this reports that it was produced by John Brennan with the help of “4 or 5 analysts”. CIA Director Gina Haspel would not release that report and – this is key – Trump did not have the courage to force its release. Assuming you know all this, why do you still charge me with “hacking” the DNC emails to help Trump win, as the Assessment argued?
  • You could take a step forward and encourage the media to report on the testimony of CrowdStrike head Sean Henry, made public more than a year ago, showing there is no technical evidence the DNC emails were hacked … by Russia or by anyone. Sean Henry’s sworn testimony was taken on Dec. 5, 2017; it was not released to the public until May 7, 2020. On what basis do you continue to charge that we hacked into the DNC and gave the emails to WikiLeaks?

Biden and his sophomore advisers will probably not be equipped to handle such direct challenges, and chances seem better than even that Putin will spare them. On balance, though, I expect a very perfunctory, meatless summit – if there is one at all next month – there being many a slip between cup and lip.

The two sides may be able to pledge cooperation re climate change. And if this turns out to be real, that would be important. Otherwise, any summit is likely to fall flat – and perhaps even do more harm than good. The more so, since Biden is not his own man, and Putin – out of his own experience with recent presidents, knows this all too well. The Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank complex (MICIMATT) is still calling the shots.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).