Reading the tea leaves a week before Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva puts a premium on the kind of media analysis we old-school Kremlinologists had to rely on back in the day. Not all rhetoric is equal though; it is just as important to make an honest attempt to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding a major initiative like the summit proposal. The weird timing of the invitation cries out for explanation.
You Asked For It, Joe
Lest we forget, President Biden suggested a summit with Putin in the midst of very high tension over Ukraine. On March 24 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued an official decree that Ukraine would take Crimea back from Russia; Kiev’s strategy includes "military measures" to achieve "de-occupation." U.S. and NATO voice "unwavering" (rhetorical) support for Zelensky, who sends tons of military equipment south and east. Russia sends troops and arms south and west into Crimea and the border area opposite Luhansk and Donetsk in the eastern Ukraine.
One Day in April
The following refresher on what all went down on April 13 may throw some light on why – in such tense circumstances – Biden proposed a summit with Putin.
- NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg slams Russia for sending "thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders."
- Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu says, in effect, Yes, Stoltenberg has that right; Moscow has sent "two armies and three airborne formations to western regions" over the prior three weeks.
- Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov criticizes NATO and the US for "deliberately turning Ukraine into a powder keg." Strongly advises cancellation of plans for imminent passage of two US guided-missile destroyers into Black Sea. (The plans were canceled.)
- President Biden calls President Putin, later calls the conversation "candid and respectful." Putin spokesman describes it as "businesslike and rather long." Biden proposes "a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia," according to the White House.
"Stable and Predictable"
In broaching a summit meeting to Putin, Biden "reaffirmed his goal of building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with US interests," according to the White House. The White House readout gave pride of place to their discussion of "a number of regional and global issues, including the intent of the United States and Russia to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues, building on the extension of the New START Treaty."
It is a safe bet that Biden and his advisers learned a valuable lesson in barely avoiding being mousetrapped into facing open hostilities (or an embarrassing backdown) in Ukraine – an area in which Russia has an "asymmetric" (as Putin later described it) preponderance of power. Thus, beneath all the gratuitous insults and asymmetrically harsh Western media rhetoric, Biden and co. might see a priority interest in heading off such misadventures in the future.
If Not Yet Trust, Then Mutual Interest
Biden and Putin might see at least a modicum of common interest in developing a useful dialogue on regional issues (like Ukraine), as well as a more obvious strategic interest in avoiding mutual annihilation. On Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan defended Biden’s summit initiative, stressing the need for "strategic stability and progress on arms control." Sullivan described Putin as "a singular kind of personalized leader, so a chance "to come together at a summit will allow us to manage this relationship … most effectively."
For his part, President Putin commenting in St. Petersburg on Friday on what issues will enjoy pride of place at the summit, also spoke of "strategic stability [and] settling international conflicts in the hottest spots," disarmament and terrorism. Acknowledging the political pressures any US president faces in trying to carve out a more sensible relationship with Russia, Putin conceded that "to a certain extent, Russian-American relations have become hostage to internal political processes in the United States itself." He added:
"I hope it ends someday. I mean the fundamental interests in the field of at least security, strategic stability and the reduction of weapons dangerous for the whole world are still more important than the current domestic political situation in the United States itself."
Taking a more conventional tack regarding current US policy, Putin lamented: US leaders "want to hold back our development and they talk about this openly. Everything else is a derivative [including] an attempt to influence the internal political processes in our country, relying on the forces that they consider to be their own in Russia."
In a separate interview on Russia’s Channel 1, Putin described Biden as "an experienced, balanced, and accurate" politician, and expressed the hope that those qualities would have a positive effect on the upcoming negotiations. Putin said, "I am not expecting anything that could become a breakthrough in U.S.-Russia relations," but added that the Geneva talks may well create the right conditions for taking further steps toward normalizing Russia-U.S. ties, which would in itself be "a positive result."
A Senior Among Sophomores
If Biden can shake himself free from his more extreme Russophobe advisers and the arms merchants who thrive on tension with Moscow, he has a mentor at hand to help him navigate the shoals. CIA chief William Burns has as much experience in foreign affairs as the rest of Biden’s wet-behind-the-ears rising sophomores (Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, et al.) put together. Indeed, Burns happened to be Ambassador to Russia when plans were afoot to make Ukraine and Georgia members of NATO.
On February 1, 2008, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, explained to Burns precisely what the US should expect from Russia were NATO to move to incorporate Ukraine. (To his credit, Burns played it straight, titling his cable "NYET MEANS NYET: RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES," and sending it to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with IMMEDIATE precedence.
Burns reported that "Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene."
I believe I can detect the fine, experienced hand of now CIA Director Burns in the "2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community" published in early April. I found it remarkedly balanced and candid on how Russia sees threats to its security:
We assess that Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces. Russian officials have long believed that the United States is conducting its own ‘influence campaigns’ to undermine Russia, weaken President Vladimir Putin, and install Western-friendly regimes in the states of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Russia seeks an accommodation with the United States on mutual noninterference in both countries’ domestic affairs and US recognition of Russia’s claimed sphere of influence over much of the former Soviet Union.
Such candor has not been seen since the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency) wrote, in its “December 2015 National Security Strategy” over the signature of DIA Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart:
The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine. Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts.
What If Things Go Bump in the Night?
The analysis above is heavily dependent on fragile tea leaves. Other straws in the wind point to a disaster at the June 16 summit in Geneva.
Let’s say that the NATO summit, in which Biden will take part on June 14, issues a Declaration (as it did in April 2008, two months after Lavrov’s loud Nyet) that Ukraine and Georgia "will become members of NATO."
Or let’s say Biden keeps ringing changes on the theme of "democratic values" to contrast the West with Russia and China, and feels compelled to talk to Putin "from a position of strength" (as Biden did in his Washington Post op-ed Sunday); or he harps on "Russian aggression" in Ukraine, without any acknowledgment of his own complicity (or at least guilty knowledge of) the Victoria Nuland-orchestrated coup in Kiev in Feb. 2014.
Or let’s say the US Department of Justice indicts a bunch of Russians for hacking (as happened three days before former President Donald Trump met with Putin in July 2018).
There are a number of things that could go bump in the night, so to speak, and either cancel the summit or turn it into an acerbic exchange like the March 18 meeting in Anchorage between Anthony Blinken/Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts – Yes, you remember, the ones who warned their interlocutors not to not speak to China in a "condescending way" or from a claimed "position of strength."
Should that kind of debate ensue in Geneva, the US team will have to have their loins girded on the chance the following questions are asked:
- Do you now regret greasing the Senate skids for the attack on Iraq?
- Did you have a chance to watch the Dr. Strangelove dvd that Oliver Stone gave Mr. Putin? Do you have any Air Force generals like that still on active duty. What about the commander of STRATCOM who talks nonchalantly about using nuclear weapons?
- What do you think about the sworn testimony of the head of the cyber-firm CrowdStrike that no one – not Russia, not anyone – hacked those DNC emails that WikiLeaks published? Why has the NY Times turned that into a state secret?
- Does your Democratic colleague, Rep. Jason Crow, really believe that "Vladimir Putin wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night trying to figure out how to destroy American democracy." And what does Speaker Nancy Pelosi mean exactly, as she keeps repeating "All roads lead to Putin"? Are we correctly informed that Hillary Clinton suggested President Putin was giving President Trump instructions on Jan. 6 as your Capitol building was attacked?
Finally, here is Putin in his own words. He has long had an allergy to "exceptionalism." After he pulled President Barack Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire by persuading the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons in early September 2013, Putin had high hopes, and set them down at the end of a New York Times op-ed on Sept. 11, 2013:
If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere … and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is "what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional."
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
I was told at the time that Putin dictated those paragraphs himself. That report garnered additional credence in early 2020, when President Putin said the same thing during an interview with Andrey Vandenko:
VANDENKO: But things did not go well [in your relationship] with Obama … Did somebody put you at odds with him?
PUTIN: No, it has nothing to do with ‘being at odds’. It’s just that when a person says that the US is an exceptional nation, with special, exclusive rights to practically the entire world, I cannot go along with that. God created us all equal and gave us equal rights.
It seems it would be good to be aware of this and to take it into account.
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).