Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.06.29

The Biden-Putin summit through Tokyo's eyes

the japan times on June 20, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. Russia

The long-anticipated first summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin was held in Geneva last week. Tokyo’s initial reaction was rather unnoteworthy, partly because the meeting ended at midnight Japan time.

In fact, an initial report written in Japanese, for lack of anything better to write about, noted that the Russian leader uncharacteristically did not make his American counterpart wait and actually showed up on time.

In Washington, by contrast, the meeting between the U.S. and Russian leaders was dubbed by some as “historic,” with many commentators contrasting the much-criticized meeting between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and the Russian leader in 2018.

Such news coverage never really interests me much because most writers focus on U.S.-centric and domestic concerns.

For many in Tokyo, after everyone had time to digest what had occurred the previous day, including myself, the general consensus was that the Biden-Putin summit was arguably the most professionally conducted and strategic performance carried out by a U.S. foreign policy team in the past four years, and probably since 2001. The following are some of my personal observations:

Diplomacy by professionals

If the 2021 Biden-Putin summit was a professional boxing match between two skilled opponents, as a New York Times article described it, the 2018 Trump-Putin meeting was like an amateur trying to square up with seasoned world champion.

In Geneva, Putin even praised Biden, calling him a “balanced professional.” Biden, for his part, said, “I did what I came to do.”

When asked whether he trusts Putin, Biden said, “Look, this is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest. That’s what it’s about.” I say well done, Mr. Biden.

Foreign policy is not performance art. It is a no-nonsense business for professionals whose only mission is to maximize their country’s national interests. In a subsequent news conference, Biden said he told Putin that his “agenda is not against Russia, but for the American people.” This is what diplomacy looks like.

Mutually assured cyber destruction?

Unlike his predecessor, Biden talked tough with Putin. He told the Russian leader that there were 16 critical infrastructure entities, from the energy sector to water systems, that should be “off-limits” to cyberattacks, meaning he will retaliate if necessary in accordance with U.S. policy. I would call this a 21st-century version of MAD, deterrence through mutually assured “cyber” destruction.

Biden also made it clear to Putin that if Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most prominent political adversary, dies in prison, “the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.” He also told him that he would “not tolerate attempts to violate our (America’s) democratic sovereignty” and “we would respond.”

Biden’s mindset

Joe Biden is obviously a strategic thinker. He understands that the strategic competition with Beijing has intensified in recent years and that China is catching up militarily with the U.S., as well as with its global political influence.

The U.S. president also knows Russia is growing weaker, though he understands no one should ever underestimate Putin. Biden said Russia is “in a situation where your economy is struggling” and he needs to move it in a more aggressive way in terms of growing it.

Biden told a new conference that “the last thing he (Putin) wants now is a cold war. You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China. China is seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world.” The U.S. leader also noted that “I don’t think he’s looking for a cold war with the United States” either.

Finally, Biden said at the airport just before leaving Geneva, “I was convinced that — let me choose my words. Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now. It is being squeezed by China. It wants to remain a major power.” This is how Biden sees Russia.

Putin’s mindset

Putin is obsessed with an expanded NATO. He wants to make Russia “great again” and is seeking to recover the USSR’s sphere of influence abroad and especially in the European theater.

To achieve this goal, Putin knows Russia needs China in its camp for the foreseeable future. It is not because Putin trusts Xi Jinping as a strategic ally, but because he does not trust the United States and its partners in Europe.

Biden knows this as well. I don’t think he expected to convince Putin to join the U.S. side during the Geneva talks. To him, it was just an arena where the two leaders could set boundaries. The U.S. president said, “The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”

To summarize, what Washington needed was to maintain the strategic status quo, meaning neither starting another hot or cold war, nor engaging in a serious confrontation with the Kremlin. Biden also wants to prevent Moscow from further moving closer to Beijing.

Takeaways for Tokyo

Tokyo is quietly pleased to see that the Biden administration’s foreign policy has been quite consistent — exemplified by the Japan-U.S. “two-plus-two” joint agreement reached in March; the joint statement that came out of the bilateral summit between Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in April; to the G7 and NATO summit communiques in June.

Of course, Tokyo is not naive enough to believe that the United States will anytime soon convince Russia to join it in confronting China or that the Kremlin would stop cooperating with Beijing. What Tokyo wishes to see is gradual progress in strategic dialogue between Washington and Moscow in the years to come.

For Russian Machiavellians, Japan-Russia relations may look like just one minor variable in the broader U.S.-Russia strategic chess game. But Tokyo wishes to remind Russian leaders that it is time for Moscow to seriously review its strategic relationships with other major powers as well.

The world is entering an era of a new hegemonic rivalry vis-a-vis China. Sooner or later, Mr. Putin will realize what this means to Russia’s international standing. Although no great power can realistically fight two major wars at the same time and expect to win, Russia, as Mr. Biden noted, cannot afford another confrontation like the Cold War that pitted the Soviets against the United States.

Mr. Putin will have to eventually decide what is in Russia’s long-term interests. And will Mr. Putin really be satisfied with Mother Russia being a junior partner to China if he chooses Beijing over Washington?