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Did Russia come out looking stronger from the Biden-Putin meeting?

The meeting carried symbolic weight, portraying Moscow as a global power that has gained enough leverage to stand up to Washington on several issues.

The US has been critical of Russia for various reasons, ranging from Moscow’s problematic human rights record to cyberattacks against Western institutions and backing strongmen in countries like Syria and Belarus, an Eastern European state. Washington has also held Moscow responsible for escalating tensions in the Ukrainian conflict.

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But during the meeting, the two leaders seemed to have brushed aside the shrill rhetoric of the past — with Biden once calling Putin a “killer” in an interview — to turn a new page with each other.

For many foreign policy experts, Russia came out looking stronger in the meeting, successfully defending its political positions across the world from Ukraine to Syria and Belarus against the US.

“There is a general feeling that Biden has become the leader, who could not take what he wanted from Putin. Immediately after the meeting, not Putin but Biden appears to be the leader, being more anxious and nervous,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based political analyst.

“This perception has been strengthened when Biden clashed with a CNN reporter during a post-summit press conference,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World.

Kaitlan Collins, the CNN journalist, asked Biden why he is confident that Putin’s behaviour would change. Biden raised his finger and said, “If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business.” After the incident, Biden apologised to the reporter.

On the other hand, Putin appeared to be confident about how the meeting went, speaking like a philosopher. “There’s no happiness in life. There’s only a mirage on the horizon, so we’ll cherish that,” Putin said after the meeting. But he also said that both leaders were still hopeful about the future. Both leaders praised each other’s experiences, describing the meeting as “constructive” and “concrete”.

The summit has also produced the restoration of bilateral diplomacy as respective ambassadors to the US and Russia will return their jobs. In March, following Biden’s “killer” remark, Russia recalled its ambassador to the US and Washington reacted in kind.

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, 2021. (AP)

What Russians wanted

For Putin, whose country’s troublesome acts have been mentioned more than 50 times in the recent NATO communique, the Geneva summit was a good opportunity to tell both Biden and the global community that Russia’s growing influence across the world should be recognised by everyone. Without making any serious counter argument regarding Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria, Biden appears to have no problem with Putin’s vision.

“We could say that Russia appears to be the winning side at the summit. Russia needed a high platform to explain its political stances and the Geneva meeting gave that opportunity to Putin,” Yalinkilicli says. Putin wanted to articulate Russian stances in front of the world audience, using the Geneva summit, and he has successfully done it, according to Yalinkilicli.

Geneva is also a meaningful location for both Russia and the US. Nearly forty years ago, another high-level summit between the US and former Soviet leaders, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, was held in Switzerland’s Geneva.

Switzerland stayed as a neutral country during and after the Cold War. As a result, Putin was also able to send its political message from a buffer zone, reminding the world that Russia is still a superpower, says Yalinkilicli.

Another interesting fact is that not Moscow but Washington wanted to have an audience with Putin, which also appears to confirm that both the American and Russian leaders have an equal political status like the days of the Cold War.

“In the Soviet and of course the Russian tradition, a summit with the US president pretty much trumps everything else,” said Leon Aron, Russia director at the American Enterprise Institute. Aron has previously argued that the summit would work in favour of Putin’s leadership, giving him a better international standing.

“For them, the meeting proves they are respected and feared,” Aron said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with US President Joe Biden at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP)

No to a new Cold War

Despite Geneva’s historical aura of the Cold War era, both sides say they have no desire to resurrect a new one. Statements from both sides have shown that the US and Russia do not want to have a new arms race and another dangerous competition on nuclear armament, says Yalinkilicli. “They don’t want to fall into a new security dilemma,” the analyst says.

As a result, they agreed to develop a new security framework for arms control, which was also a starting point for the two old super powers to reduce military tensions back in the days of the Cold War.

“This could be more advantageous to Russia than the US,” says the Moscow-based analyst.

Except for New START, Russia and the US left various agreements concerning arms reduction. As a result, Moscow has sought a new security arrangement on a global scale with Washington “not to put itself in a Cold War-like situation, where its weakened economy cannot compete with the US for another arms race,” Yalinkilicli says.

Despite highly modernising its army and weapons infrastructure, in the face of instability of energy prices during the pandemic, Russia, a gas-rich country, does not want to be the target of Washington, aiming to ease tensions with both the US and the West, according to the analyst.

While both countries do not want to restore the old Cold War status, the Russian press has seen one of the summit’s critical results as the revitalisation of “controlled tensions” status between the two countries, Yalinkilicli says.

“Russians wanted to have a summer with reduced tensions with the US and its allies. That expectation was also met at the Geneva summit.”

In the long-term, like Americans, Russians know that serious disagreements continue to exist, Yalinkilicli says. “They [Russians] are cautiously waiting for what will happen next,” the analyst says.

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