The American and Russian presidents will meet today in Geneva for a summit at a moment of deeply strained relations between the two countries.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin’s encounter at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva is full of the potential for high drama but low on expectations for diplomatic breakthroughs.
The meeting, which is expected to last the whole afternoon, comes at the end of Joe Biden’s first foreign trip as US president which has taken him to Cornwall for the G7 meeting and Brussels for separate NATO and EU summits.
At all of these meetings, messages have been moulded and red lines set by western leaders which sources say Mr Biden will spell out to Mr Putin.
Ukraine, Belarus, Iran, Syria and issues like arms proliferation are all expected to be discussed as well as behaviour by Russia which western nations consider to be contrary to the so-called international rules based system.
The fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, poisoned then imprisoned in Russia, will be raised by the American president. It is a subject on which he is unlikely to get much traction with his Russian counterpart who considers the case an internal Russian affair.
But domestically for Mr Biden, who is facing criticism for agreeing to a meeting with Mr Putin so early in his presidency, it’s important to be seen to be pressuring the Russians.
The US President, who famously called Mr Putin “a killer” has conceded already that there is “no guarantee” that the meeting will effect any change of behaviour by the Russian president.
As well as the Navalny case, the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018 is likely to feature in the talks.
Defence rivalry will be a key issue with an attempt at a new dialogue on arms control. Issues like the territorial control in the Arctic, space, cyber and autonomous weapons systems could all be up for discussion.
Andrey Kortunov is director general of the Russian International Affairs Council and considered to be a Kremlin insider.
He told Sky News: “They will not resolve these issues in Geneva, they might only authorise their respective bureaucrats and military and diplomats to get into a serious conversation on all of these issues. That would be already a major accomplishment.”
He continued: “I think that Biden and Putin will probably articulate their positions on issues like Ukraine or Belarus too. But it’s hard to believe that they can achieve a breakthrough on such sensitive issues.”
Expectations by diplomats on both sides are being kept intentionally low. From that base it’s possible to build up even small wins as diplomatic breakthroughs.
There is a chance that the two leaders could agree to repair the basic mechanics of their bilateral relationship by reinstalling ambassadors in their respective capitals. But beyond that sort of gesture, bigger announcements are not likely.
“I don’t think that they can expect to come to any conclusions. I don’t even think that they are in a position to sign a joint communique or any other document. Unfortunately, the positions of the two sides on very fundamental problems of global politics are too far apart,” Mr Kortunov said.
On Monday, Mr Biden said he will make clear to Putin “what the red lines are” and “if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond in kind.”
Asked for his assessment of the former KGB officer, Mr Biden said: “He’s bright, he’s tough, and I have found that he is a – as they say when I used to play ball – a worthy adversary.”
The meeting, which was initiated by President Biden, has been arranged over just a few weeks and will involve one-plus-one talks with Mr Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Mr Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
A second session will then include other senior officials on both sides.
The two leaders will not hold a joint news conference. Diplomats deem it to be too risky for them to appear together because of the potential of an embarrassing public spat in response to media questions.
“Definitely the summit was prepared in a haste. It’s the very beginning (of the relationship). And it’s going to be a modest beginning especially for Biden. He cannot look as if he yielded too much to the Russian counterpart,” Mr Kortunov told Sky News.
There are areas where cooperation is expected. They include arms control, climate change, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, humanitarian assistance to Syrians and working together on the COVID-19 pandemic.
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