Biden’s gamble with Putin in Geneva

One theory about Russia’s post-Cold War resentment of the US is that the perceived American victor showed too little respect to the vanquished. As a result, a centerpiece of Putin’s long political project has been to restore Moscow’s prestige — by tarnishing Washington’s.

The fact that Biden offered — and Russia accepted — a summit in Geneva that will draw comparisons between iconic superpower meetings of the past is therefore symbolically and diplomatically important. The two leaders will meet on Wednesday.

Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, US President Dwight Eisenhower, French Foreign Minister Edgar Faure, and UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden at the historic Geneva Summit in 1955.

In 1955, US President Dwight Eisenhower met the leaders of France, the UK and the Soviet Union in the Swiss city, in a meeting designed to defuse tensions that threatened to pitch the world back into war. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev forged a personal relationship in Geneva that was one of the first steps in ending the Cold War.

Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva in 1985.

The picture beamed back to Moscow tomorrow will show the President of the United States treating the President of Russia as an equal. In itself, that’s a win for Putin and will cause some Americans to question Biden’s game. After all, Russia meddled in the last two elections to help Donald Trump, is suppressing its democratic opposition, moving closer to American foe China, and is accused of cyber hacks against the US government and economy.

Trump supporters might complain of double standards — given past critical coverage of the ex-President’s fawning over Putin. But there’s also little chance this time Biden will emulate his predecessor by throwing US intelligence agencies under the bus to please the former KGB colonel.

While cozying up to Russia rarely works, neither does humiliation. Former President Barack Obama tried to reset relations with Moscow, but came away deeply frustrated. And after Putin annexed Crimea, Obama witheringly dismissed a nation with a proud cultural and political heritage as a “regional power” acting out of “weakness.”

The new Geneva summit is unlikely to be friendly. Biden has strong domestic and geopolitical incentives to deliver a face-to-face tongue lashing. And big differences on cyber security, arms control and territorial disputes in Eastern Europe hang overhead. But given the tension in the current estrangement, Biden’s gamble is probably worth a try.

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