Putin’s Russia and the U.S.: A toxic couple seeks to co-exist

World·Analysis

Never mind Hollywood-style happy endings. Ask Vladimir Putin about his first meeting with Joe Biden, and he makes a bleaker allusion to Russian literature. That's about as good as it gets for the U.S. and Russia, a toxic couple seeking to co-exist.

A first meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland on Wednesday was aimed at stabilizing relations.(Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Ask Vladimir Putin to predict what the next chapter looks like in U.S.-Russia relations, and his reply turns to a notoriously pessimistic place.

That place is 19th century Russian literature.

"There is no happiness in life," Putin replied, with a quote he attributed to the writer Leo Tolstoy. "There's just a glimpse of happiness. So cherish it."

That was Putin's answer Wednesday when asked by a journalist whether his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden made him hopeful.

And that is about as hopeful as it gets in Russian-American affairs these days; nobody is talking about Hollywood-style happily-ever-afters.

The countries are instead focused on surviving, like two characters locked in a destructive relationship, seeking co-operation wherever possible.

Biden offered a similar assessment.

A protester wearing a mask of Putin looks at a poster of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny ahead of the summit in Geneva, Switzerland.(Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Not quite 'kumbaya'

Like Putin's response, you might detect the faintest molecules of optimism, if you squint hard enough, perhaps with the assistance of a telescope.

"I said to [Putin] … 'This is not a kumbaya moment,'" Biden later told reporters.

"[I told him it's not] like, 'Let's hug and love each other. But it's clearly not in anybody's interest, your country or mine, for us to be in a situation where we're in a new Cold War.'"

Their meeting was a first attempt to turn the page on an era marked by election-meddling and computer hacks; by sanctions, the expulsion of diplomats, the Ukraine invasion, and the poisoning, death and imprisonment of Putin's rivals.

Expectations for the summit were low. The list of mutual grievances was long. And there were no major breakthroughs at their encounter in Switzerland.

But they talked.

Putin showed up on time for his meeting with Biden at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland. That counts as a good start.(Denis Balibouse/Reuters/Pool)

What they announced

The two leaders agreed to name ambassadors again to Washington and Moscow, where the positions are currently vacant.

They also agreed to set up a security dialogue that will spend the coming months looking for areas where they might de-escalate their relationship.

Putin even showed up on time.

This counts as a good start for a meeting with Putin, who sometimes keeps interlocutors waiting for hours as one of his power moves.

The Russian leader later described the encounter as professional and cordial. He conceded that it might still be a while before he's ever invited to the White House.

Biden wouldn't even share a news conference stage with him, and they addressed reporters separately after the meeting.

They avoided making explicit threats against each other in public.

Biden said little publicly about the lingering bitterness over suspected Russian hacks into U.S. election infrastructure in 2016.

A veiled U.S. threat on ransomware?

He did make what sounded like the hint of a possible reprisal if Russian computer hackers continue targeting the U.S.

Biden said he gave Putin a list of 16 types of infrastructure that should be off limits to hacking — they include water and energy plants.

If talks go well with Russia over the coming months, Biden said, there could be some sort of understanding on cybersecurity.

If, however, Russian criminal gangs keep launching attacks like the one that paralyzed the Colonial oil pipeline and recently caused gas shortages in the U.S., Biden alluded to one area where Russia could face damaging attacks.

He said he asked Putin how he would like it if ransomware attacks took out the pipelines of Russia's oil industry — a lifeline of its economy.

A suspected Russian criminal attack on a U.S. pipeline caused gas shortages last month. Biden warned that Russia would be especially vulnerable to oil and gas cyberattacks. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

He said Putin replied: "It would matter."

Yet some of Biden's critics at home point to his stance on energy pipelines as only emboldening Russia.

In the House of Representatives, Republican Steve Scalise called it inexplicable that Biden has fought to kill a pipeline project from Canada, Keystone XL, but has not tried to stop a major one from Russia, Nord Stream 2.

Putin's go-to move: 'Whataboutism'

Peter Rough, a former official in the George W. Bush White House and now a foreign policy analyst, said the soon-to-be complete Russia-to-Germany pipeline will increase Putin's power.

Nord Stream 2 will allow Russian gas exports to bypass Ukraine, Rough noted, costing that country $2 billion a year in revenues and two per cent of its total GDP.

"You'd have to be an absolute fool to think this is just an economic project," he told a panel hosted this week by the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

Biden dropped U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking the project, based on the rationale that it was nearly complete and would get built anyway, and because it was prized by a valued ally, Germany.

Putin had a favourite tactic when allegations against him surfaced: Accuse the U.S. of doing the same. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The leaders' news conferences offered glimpses of the toxic bilateral dynamic.

Putin made clear he accepts no blame for the eroded state of affairs. He responded to any question about Russian misbehaviour with a fire hose of whataboutism.

His invasion of Ukraine? What about U.S. militarism, Putin retorted. Russia isn't sending troops to Americans' doorstep, he said, while the U.S. and NATO have soldiers in Eastern Europe, which Putin sees as a threat.

Cyberattacks from Russia? What about all the cyberattackers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Latin America, Putin said.

The killing and jailing of political opponents? Putin refused to refer to Alexei Navalny by name. But what about the police killings of African-Americans, Putin said. Or the arrests of rioters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. Or the killing of one of those rioters?

"One participant was shot on the spot," Putin said, alluding to the death of Ashli Babbitt. "[She was] unarmed."

Biden snaps at reporter: 'What the hell?'

A testy exchange between Biden and one reporter illustrated the limits of his expectations for the relationship.

A journalist asked Biden what made him so confident Putin's behaviour would change — and the president ripped into her.

"What the hell?" Biden snapped. "When did I say I was confident?"

When the CNN reporter pressed on, and asked why he'd described the meeting as constructive, Biden replied: "If you don't understand that, you're in the wrong business."

Biden snapped at a reporter while leaving a news conference, accusing her of twisting his remarks about the Putin meeting.(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Biden also brushed off the Russian president's attempt to compare the treatment of political dissent in both countries, calling the comparison "ridiculous."

Some U.S.-based Russia analysts hailed the dialogue as a welcome step, if only to help de-escalate things slightly.

One such analyst is Fiona Hill, who worked in the Trump White House and was a star witness in the first Trump impeachment inquiry.

Another is a Canadian-American scholar Kathryn Stoner, who has a new book out on Russia. She and Hill appeared together on a think-tank panel earlier this week where they shared their modest expectations for the summit.

What's next

Part of the problem, they said, is Putin doesn't actually prize a good relationship with the West; he benefits politically from hostility with the West, and is unlikely to change much.

Yet they agreed there might be some possibilities for improved relations, like arms control.

"There are many areas where Putin's Russia doesn't want stability and predictability — that's a power tool for them, being unpredictable," Stoner said at the panel, hosted by the Brookings Institute.

"But in some areas they may want predictability."

And with respect to Tolstoy, happiness might not be the objective here.

It might have been articulated by another figure who lived in the century just passed, in another quote of uncertain provenance. As Winston Churchill said: Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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