When Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva this week, he was representing a new Russia. In the past year, the stage of Russia’s development begun under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin has demonstratively been brought to an end, as formalized by the changes to the constitution that will allow Putin to stay in power for many more years. 

The new Russia is no longer developing by building—or even imitating the building of—Western institutions. It does not reject the market economy or open borders, and by Soviet standards (the reference point for the generation of its current leaders) it’s a free country. But that doesn’t mean it’s obliged to impose Western standards of freedom of speech or competitive democracy, or that the market has to be open to Western companies.

Russia will no longer be evaluated according to external criteria. This is why plans for the summit had no impact on the regime’s treatment of the opposition or independent media, or its support for the embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Quite the contrary: in the run-up to the meeting with Biden, the Kremlin did not stop building a more authoritarian state, but accelerated the process. All of Biden’s attempts to shame Putin for the tribulations of Russian opposition figures were stonewalled with a lack of understanding and counter-accusations. For Putin, there is no longer a system of coordinates in which those reproaches carry any weight.

Relations with Russia must from now on be officially built not on potential affinity with the West, nor on the basis of Western assessments of the state of affairs in Russia, but purely on common interests, against mutual enemies, and for the sake of avoiding clashes where they might occur.

Just as Putin brought a new Russia to the summit, Biden was also representing a new America: one that is restoring its former relations with its allies, Western unity, and democratic clout. 

What Moscow is proposing is a renewed format of Cold War–era relations, when the two sides operated in full recognition of their obvious differences, contained each other’s expansion, and together wrote the rules needed to avoid a fatal collision.

In the better periods of their cooperation, the two superpowers were called on to work together in the interests of all mankind against global evils, from fascism and colonialism to helping the developing world fight hunger and illiteracy. From time to time, Putin makes subtle overtures to the United States along these lines: suggestions of joining forces against a common enemy, such as Islamic terrorism, the COVID-19 pandemic, or global warming. 

U.S. presidents have been reluctant to enter into such cooperation to avoid creating the illusion of raising Russia’s status back up to its former level. Biden, however, may agree to such collaboration. The climate, for one, is high up on his agenda for bilateral cooperation, and that’s unlikely to encounter much opposition at home: the Democrats see the climate threat as a key part of their agenda. 

The topic of extending the New START agreement and nuclear arms control is another area in which Biden can collaborate with Putin without attracting the same criticism as his tractable predecessor: Donald Trump considered that an America that was “great again” shouldn’t allow itself to be constrained by old treaties with a fallen superpower. 

In any case, for Biden—a professional politician since the days of the Cold War—the prevention of a nuclear war between two dissimilar nations is an issue close to his heart. A revival of the tried and tested tradition of nuclear talks between the superpowers would also suit the Kremlin. The two sides even released a joint statement on strategic stability following the Geneva summit, contrary to expectations that no communiques would follow.

The two sides were so caught up in global issues that it seems they had no time to go into local conflicts in any great detail. Ukraine and Belarus, and Syria and Libya were all discussed, but not enough for those to whom they matter the most. 

Putin did not decide not to make any conciliatory gestures ahead of the summit and to present the new Russia unapologetically just because relations with the United States are already at rock bottom. Another important reason is that the expansionism of Russia and the United States, unlike during the Cold War, is causing them to collide in the new world, where both are perceived as diminishing against the backdrop of other growing powers. Russia’s current expansion is taking place in a small part of its former sphere of influence and even its own territory. U.S. hegemony is returning at a time when Washington’s share of global GDP is decreasing, with that gap being filled by China, which is now also America’s main rival in terms of technology and global prestige. 

An important turning point has occurred since Biden’s electoral victory. When the Democrats entered the White House, it seemed as though the main conflict of Trump’s presidency—with China—would be smoothed over, while Russia would be isolated and punished harshly. Yet several months on, the new administration’s rhetoric on China has only gotten tougher. It might seem that since the world’s two biggest economies, which are closely intertwined, have fallen out over their differences, they should meet up and resolve their conflict. But Biden has not yet met with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and now he has started referring to the question of whether the new coronavirus was in fact made in a Chinese laboratory: an idea previously erroneously believed to be exclusively Trumpist.

China, of course, was not just a random target for Trump’s personal anger. It is objectively a global rival, and any U.S. administration will have to focus on its containment. Before turning to this main task, it would be advisable to solve the Russian question one way or another. Trying to solve it by turning Russia into part of the Western world ended in failure. The only remaining option is to neutralize it, leaving it as its leadership—and, for now, the majority of the population—want to see it.

Biden hasn’t forfeited the theoretical possibility of ending the active standoff with Russia and starting to replace chaos with a relationship built out of the ruins of Russia’s Western path, and a new contractual order with Russia. For Putin, it’s a chance to make clear that reaching an agreement with Russia is no guarantee of any future Western leanings, and that the West must accept Russia as it is, as it did during the previous era of bipolarity. And even if Russia’s current leader stays in power longer than was previously announced during the more Western-leaning years, that does not mean that the agreements reached during that time are now null and void.

  • Alexander Baunov