Alex Petriashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
June turned out to be an extremely eventful and interesting month in international relations. During and after the meetings in Cornwall and Brussels, the decisions, briefs, and communiqués highlighted a number of key issues that were fully understood and agreed upon, including the consolidation of efforts to combat the pandemic; conducting additional measures and investments to revitalize the global economic development; and taking the necessary, urgent, short and medium-term coordinated steps to successfully tackle climate change. However, it was noticeable that during and before the summits there were three main issues that were of particular interest to the world, namely:
- The USA is back – Relations between the Allies are returning to the traditional level and transatlantic ties are no longer threatened;
- China represents a systemic challenge, but the world is not ready for a Cold War;
- Russia’s authoritarian ruler, Vladimir Putin, is increasingly distancing himself from the democratic world through his actions at home and abroad, however, discussions with him about nuclear and cyber security, as well as climate change and regional conflicts, is important.
During President Biden’s first European tour, the leaders of the Democratic world strongly and demonstratively welcomed the return of the United States as a global leader. This was vivid at both the NATO and US-EU summits.
It is noteworthy that for the first time in the history of G7 and NATO, China was included in the summary documents. The summit participants reaffirmed their readiness to continue a constructive dialogue with China, as well as to develop fair and mutually beneficial relations. At the same time, they highlighted the gross human rights violations committed by China in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, as well as the provocative and unacceptable actions taken by China in Taiwan and South China Sea. As expected, China’s response was harsh, with the Chinese government particularly dissatisfied with NATO’s stance.
The leaders of the G7 also strongly stressed that Russia should withdraw its troops from Crimea and eastern Ukraine and that it is not a mediator, but an explicit side in this armed conflict. However, here also, the leaders of the countries with the strongest economies are ready to entertain dialogue with Russia.
The NATO summary communiqué once again used very harsh wording on Russia, but at the same time it pointed out that the Alliance was interested in conducting a business- and result-oriented dialogue with Russia on a number of issues. In view of the aforementioned, and based on high-ranking anonymous sources, a meeting of the NATO-Russia Commission may be considered again in the near future.
The culmination of the June summits was President Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. After tête-à-tête and expanded format meetings, both sides appeared satisfied. The main result for Vladimir Putin was to break the isolation, or more precisely to present himself as a leader with whom even the first persons of the democratic world want to deliberate and normalize relations. While it was important for President Biden to underscore that he had communicated to his counterpart everything that was necessary (human rights abuses in Russia, escalation of the conflict with Ukraine, interference in US affairs, etc.), during the concluding press conference, the US President also outlined some important topics he had discussed with Putin and on which he might start a dialogue in the near future, namely:
- Initiating a Strategic Stability Dialogue;
- Dialogue on the development of possible formats regarding cyber security issues;
- Establishing contacts between the agencies of the two countries on the repatriation of detained US citizens;
- Collaboration on climate change;
- Possible coordination on Iran’s nuclear program and the issue of maintaining stability in Afghanistan.
It is noteworthy that the meeting of President Biden with Vladimir Putin was viewed in expert circles with more skepticism than optimism. I will admit, I was one of the skeptics. Not because I am against dialogue: on the contrary, I am in favor of it when it is from a position of strength, which is the only way to succeed when dealing with Russia. We all remember the consequences of trying to establish a civilized relationship with Putin in the 2000s, and the US administration’s famous subsequent attempt to reset. Over the years, the constant temptation among the European leaders for “initiating dialogue” is also partially to blame, primarily driven by national economic and financial interests.
Just 10 days after the Geneva meeting, on June 26, the EU summit was held, preceded by the initiative of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to hold an EU-Russia summit. As it became known later, there was a rather heated debate on this topic. A total of 10 European countries to various degrees opposed holding a summit with Putin. But it was the principled positions of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that made the biggest impact, and, as a result, the summit decisions did not mention any plans for high-level meetings or the holding of a summit with Putin.
Clearly, this issue will not be removed so easily from the agenda of the German and French leaders. On June 28, Angela Merkel spoke again about the need to meet with Putin. In particular, she noted that instead of talking to each other about the hybrid attacks perpetrated against Germany, France, Italy, and the Baltic states, it would be better to raise these issues directly with the Russian President and emphasize that mutually beneficial cooperation cannot be established on such a basis. Merkel has only a few months left in power and politics. Although she received the decision of the US President to lift sanctions related to Nordstream 2, the outgoing German Chancellor is sparing no effort to leave Europe and her future successor with a format of dialogue with Russia. Against this background, the French president’s statement that he does not need EU summits to meet with Putin seems much more harmless. However, while he is the president, we should still anticipate attempts by him to convene a summit.
What will happen in the near future? Will we see another attempted reset between the West and Russia? I hope, 1. No; 2. Not in the form it was before; 3. Not at the expense of the interests of Georgia, Ukraine, and other partners; 4. The political system in the United States will function properly and take further steps in the interests of national security; 5. It will not be possible to convince Poland and the Baltic states to change their stance.
It may seem paradoxical and may sound ironic, but in preventing a detrimental reset, I place my bet most of all on Russia itself. To be honest, I was even happy when I read an extensive article by S. Lavrov entitled “On Law, Rights, and Rules.” When the first Russian diplomat accuses the leaders of democracies, among many other claims, of “having the mindset of the reckless 90s” and completely disregarding the principles of the UN and the OSCE, I became convinced that Russia has not and will not overcome the mindset reflected in the diplomatic note addressed to British Foreign Secretary Sir Austin Chamberlain 100 years ago, known in history as “Our answer to Chamberlain”. Of course, it has refined agitation / propaganda, it has learned well alternative routes to reach the Europeans, and it does not shy from flexing its nuclear weapons either, but given the painful experience of the recent past, I still hope that the decision about a reset between the West and Russia is still far away.