The morning after a Russian-American summit is most critical to know whether the previous day’s bonhomie was real, surreal or unreal. Surveying the Geneva Summit (June 16) between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, I cautiously assessed the next day,
“Does Biden have the political capital to press ahead with a project to create “stability and predictability” in US-Russia relations? Clearly, it is too early to say this summit was a success for Biden or not. Weeks and months may be needed to see how the US-Russia relationship develops. One summit in Geneva cannot transform the relationship.” (Takeaways from Biden-Putin summit, Indian Punchline)
Three days later, the event is cresting around the edges. It indicates a chemical burn and may cause extensive tissue damage.
Putin probably had some premonition. His effusive remarks about Biden on a personal note on June 17 Thursday, immediately after returning to Moscow, had added a caveat, “I do hope that we will not see a rerun of the previous years and he (Biden) will have a chance to work calmly.”
The Kremlin is immensely experienced in dealing with America. Thus, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sounded an early warning on June 18 Friday that his experienced eyes could discern a certain degree of retraction already in “the assessments of US officials, including the participants of the talks, on the outcomes of the Geneva talks.”
With characteristic frankness, Lavrov chastised those folks, “This is not the approach that the presidents talked about. I want those who comment on the results of the summit in such a way to hear this: ‘This will not be a one-way street.’ ”
However, on June 20 Sunday, the CNN aired an explosive interview with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who announced that “we are preparing another package of sanctions to apply” on the Kremlin’s handling of the highly sensitive issue of the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and, furthermore, that Washington shall “continue to apply every 90 days sanctions against Russian entities involved in the construction of Nord Stream II (gas pipeline.)”
The Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov (who just returned to Washington) promptly noted, “This is not a signal we all expected after the summit. I don’t think it is possible to stabilise and normalise relations between countries by means of sanctions. The current task is to normalise dialogue. First of all, we need to restore wrecked dialogue mechanisms.”
The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has since promised a “logical response.” Of course, the CNN interview with Sullivan was carefully choreographed. He was invited to react to the pervasive scepticism in the Beltway that Biden was naive to put faith in Putin’s words.
It all boils down to the political environment in the US where the Democratic Party’s campaign against former President Donald Trump being a Manchurian candidate at the beck and call of the Kremlin struck deep roots in the public consciousness and draws nourishment from the latent Russophobia in the subsoil.
Putin’s Russia is a highly toxic subject in the US’ foreign-policy discourses.
None other than Hillary Clinton underscored the vehement rejection of any sort of engagement with Putin’s Russia by the Biden presidency. Clinton made it highly personal:
“I think that (Biden’s) long history with foreign relations, his eight years as vice president seeing what worked, what didn’t work, watching the disaster of the Trump presidency in basically giving a green light to Putin to do whatever he wanted – once he helped elect Trump, of course – I think you’ll see a much different approach.”
Clinton was speaking on the day of the Geneva Summit. Being an inveterate crusader against Putin’s Russia, and considering that both Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are her proteges, Clinton’s opinions carry weight.
Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s remarks were not countered by any US official. But Sullivan tore into Mike Pompeo when the latter called Biden “weak on Russia.”
What lies ahead?
A standstill is inevitably a rollback when it comes to US-Russia ties. Some incipient signs are there already. Take Afghanistan or Myanmar, where Biden hopes to extract some Russian help.
At a media briefing on June 17 Thursday, Zakharova plainly ridiculed the US move to hire the Turkish military to operate the Kabul International Airport and instead suggested “that the final decision on this score should be adopted in a level-headed manner, proceeding, among other things, from the aims of promoting the process of intra-Afghan national reconciliation.”
Washington is now considering the hiring of Pentagon contractors (mercenaries) to secure Kabul airport. But that will be a hugely controversial step with grave consequences, as apparent from Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s brusque rejection of the very idea of American military presence on Pakistani soil in relation to the Afghan situation.
On Myanmar, Russia is actively coordinating with China to squash the US attempts to fuel instability in that country. Recently, Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin visited China and met State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on June 8.
According to the Chinese readout, Wang said, “June 8 marks the 71st anniversary of the establishment of China-Myanmar diplomatic relations. Over the past 71 years, the people of China and Myanmar have stuck together and helped each other… China’s friendly policy toward Myanmar is not affected by changes to Myanmar’s domestic and external situation… China has supported, is supporting and will support Myanmar in choosing a development path that suits its own circumstances. China stands ready to work with Myanmar…”
Beijing intends to do business with the military leadership in Myanmar. And Moscow is also planning the same. In fact, the Commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Min Aung Hlaing just landed in Moscow on a 5-day visit.
These crushing blows to the Biden administration’s prestige will resonate all across Asia-Pacific region.
Russia and China are coordinating to derail the US’ grand project to create rings of instability in their adjacent regions — Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Afghanistan.
Where does the US go from here? Clearly, it lacks the capacity to pursue a double containment strategy against Russia and China. Nor is there any aspiration on the part of the European powers to get entangled in such a strategy risking confrontation with Russia and China.
Last week, on return from Geneva, Sullivan hinted at Plan B, saying Biden “will look for opportunities to engage with President Xi going forward… It’s now just a question of when and how.”