US-Russia summit will not be a game-changer but at least the two sides are talking

The threat landscape has expanded significantly beyond strategic stability to include cyber, climate change and all manner of grey zone activities

It has been said so often since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea that US-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War low that the phrase feels exhausted, as tired as the continued efforts to find common ground.

In the long history of US-Russia summitry, the basic starting point in the Cold War era prior to the breakthroughs achieved under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was that there should at least be a minimum of cooperation between the two Cold War superpowers.

That is once again the rather insubstantial premise on which presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will be meeting in Geneva, where their predecessors have met twice before.

A chance for president Biden to spell out what it would take to get a better relationship with Russia; a chance for president Putin to see what’s in it for him; a chance to see what the ‘Geneva spirit’ can do for US-Russian rapport this time round.

Nikita Krushchev and Dwight Eisenhower, France and the UK, in Geneva (1995)

The first Geneva summit in 1955 was billed as an attempt to reduce international tensions.

The USSR’s wartime leader Joseph Stalin who had reneged on post-war promises to allow democratic elections to countries brought under Soviet control had died two years earlier.

His successor Nikita Khrushchev was meeting face to face with US president Dwight Eisenhower, France and the UK in an attempt to wind down Cold War tensions.

Trade and nuclear arms controls were high on the agenda but West Germany had just joined NATO and in response, the Soviet Union promptly drew up the Warsaw Pact, a collective defence treaty for the Eastern states.

Mistrust ran deep and the status quo barely shifted.

Krushchev and John F Kennedy, Vienna 1961

Khrushchev would participate in three subsequent US-Russia summits, notably Vienna in 1961 where he met with John F Kennedy shortly after the failed US-backed ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion of Cuba.

US attempts to push for nuclear arms reductions went nowhere and within a year the two powers would find themselves on the brink of nuclear war after the US identified Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev in the 1971 Moscow summit

Fast forward a decade and Richard Nixon set about attempting a new strategy with both Moscow and Beijing.

He became the first US President to visit Moscow, (he had already visited as vice-president), and the second, after Franklin D Roosevelt, to visit the Soviet Union.

The Moscow summit saw a significant breakthrough on arms control with the signing between Nixon and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited the number of ballistic missiles and anti-ballistic defence systems deployable by the two nuclear powers.

Discussions on arms control and a ban on nuclear testing would continue under Brezhnev but it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as Soviet leader that cooperation between the two superpowers ramped up.

The 1985 meeting with Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Geneva

It was not only a political stepping stone to the most important treaty on nuclear disarmament signed in the Cold War era, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, but a meeting of minds.

Gorbachev recognised that the communist model was falling short, increasingly incapable of competing with the capitalist West let alone meeting the needs of its own people.

He also believed fervently in the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. In Geneva, both leaders issued a statement agreeing that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’.

It would take a summit in Reykjavik the following year to hammer out their differences but finally, in Washington DC in 1987, the two were able to reach an agreement on destroying an entire category of nuclear weapons – intermediate-range ballistic missiles – and on reducing their nuclear arsenals.

A high point in US-Soviet cooperation and a significant milestone in what would prove to be the final years of the Cold War.

Between that Geneva summit and this one, a lot has changed.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the turmoil within Russia of the 1990s, the advent of Vladimir Putin and the dismantling of most of the architecture around nuclear disarmament so painstakingly erected by those Cold War leaders.

The US, citing Russian violations, has pulled out of both the ABM and the INF Treaties.

The Open Skies Treaty which provided for unarmed aerial surveillance of each other’s territory – first posited by Eisenhower in Geneva in 1955 – is no more.

Both sides point the finger of blame at each other.

The threat landscape has expanded significantly beyond strategic stability to include cyber, climate change and all manner of grey zone activities.

Within this context, Barack Obama’s early attempts at a reset failed.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he refused to meet with Vladimir Putin except on the sidelines of multilateral events and made sure that Russia was expelled from the G8 group of nations.

Donald Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki in 2018 hardly set the tone for better bilateral relations even if it did provide a platform for a very peculiar form of mutual admiration.

The summit was overshadowed by allegations of Russian interference in Trump’s election and despite his seeming affinity with his Russian counterpart, US Russian relations during Trump’s presidency remained dire, punctuated by escalating sanctions against Moscow.

No one expects much from Geneva third time round. Both the US and Russian sides have been at pains to make that much clear.

This US-Russia summit will not be a game-changer but at least the two sides are talking – a sign at least of respect for the threat the other represents in what is fair to describe as a complete absence of trust.

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