Wednesday marks the first time that President Joe Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin since taking office. The summit will happen in Geneva, and the discussions could set the course between the two adversaries as tensions continue to escalate between U.S. and Russia.
“How the Biden administration is going to deal with this, to create a new normal, it’s going to be an interesting challenge.” —Aaron Retish, Wayne State University
Since Biden took office, he has significantly ramped up his rhetoric against Putin. His administration has twice imposed sanctions on Russia. In March, they sanctioned seven senior officials over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and in April, they imposed economic sanctions because of various cyberattacks.
Listen: Russia expert Aaron Retish on Biden and Putin meeting.
Aaron Retish is a professor of history at Wayne State University, with a specialization in Russian and Soviet history. He says while these meetings between world leaders are important, they are mostly “grand theater.” “What you want is to have two heads of state, shaking hands and speaking, that itself is important,” Retish says. “It’s actually essential in diplomatic relations to kind of show that the two are willing to be in the same room. It’s what happens behind the scenes, what happens on the sidelines that is really the most important.”
Retish believes Biden will likely bring up red lines, cybersecurity and human rights with Putin, but he is not sure what Putin will bring up with Biden. “We know [Putin] wants to be seen as a major player,” he says. “But Putin needs to do this thing where he needs to show that he’s equal to Biden but he also needs to show that he is willing to have this confrontation, that Russia offers its separate path in world politics. Putin might ask for something from the U.S., the question is what. Will it be getting rid of sanctions? Will it be political negotiations?”
According to Retish, Biden’s going to have to figure out a way to box in Russia in so his foreign policy is not dominated by having to deal with Putin, which was a problem during President Obama’s years in office. “Obama said that Russia was a regional power, which really upset Putin and Russia kind of lashed out, they lashed out at what they were being boxed in by NATO and the EU. So how the Biden administration is going to deal with this, to create a new normal, it’s going to be an interesting challenge,” Retish says.