Geneva and London (CNN) – Even before US President Joe Biden met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, expectations were low.
Beyond some basic commitments on the reinstatement of diplomats and the agreement to open a “constructive” dialogue with the United States on issues such as cybersecurity and foreign policy, Putin gave no indication that the first face-to-face meeting of the two leaders on Wednesday would have forced a change of attitude. Apparently no amount of friendly words will stop the Russian leader from continuing to vigorously pursue his political agenda both in Russia and abroad with near total impunity.
Despite saying in the first part of his press conference that he did not believe there was “any kind of hostility” between him and Biden, Putin launched into a familiar tirade of “whataboutism” in responding to criticism with “so what about this …”) anti-American to deflect criticism of the Russian Federation.
When asked by CNN about cyberattacks on US institutions from Russian soil, Putin mentioned cyberattacks against Russia. “As far as cybersecurity is concerned, we agreed that we would initiate consultations on that issue and I think it is extremely important. Obviously, both parties have to assume certain obligations there, “he also said.
When asked about Russian domestic politics, Putin repeatedly criticized the stability and moral position of the United States, pointing to the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill and the assassination of George Floyd. For many blacks in the United States, “you don’t have time to open your mouth and they shoot you dead,” he said.
When asked about Russia’s crackdown on domestic political opposition, in particular the arrest of Alexey Navalny, the Russian president even suggested that the well-known dissident actually wanted to be arrested.
“This man knew he was breaking Russian law. He has been convicted twice… He consciously wanted to break the law. He did exactly what he wanted to do. So what kind of discussion can we have (about him)? “
On the issue of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Putin claimed that his country’s military activity in the region was completely in line with international law, and that the Americans were in fact the aggressors for ‘developing capabilities in the Russian border ». On the sensitive issue of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, he said “there was nothing to discuss.”
Regular observers of the Russian president are used to this level of confidence and disdain. Putin is a man so sure of his absolute power at home that he can attend a meeting with the most powerful person in the world with practically nothing to lose.
What Putin took
The optics of the summit were almost adapted to Putin’s internal needs. The meetings were requested by the US, which, as far as the Kremlin is concerned, confirms that Putin is a leader of similar stature to the US president.
This is exactly what the Kremlin wants. Talking to the United States as equals and in such a way that the other side does not demand a change of position as a condition for dialogue, ”says Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst at the Moscow-based Crisis Group.
“There is no doubt that Putin will continue to test Biden if the dialogue stalls or develops in a direction that is disadvantageous for Moscow. This is not yet the beginning of the normalization of relationships. It is a pause in its greatest deterioration, “he adds.
As contradictory as it may be for Putin to punch the president of the United States in the eye in the future, all the actions of the Russian president are carried out with a view to how it will work for him at the national level.
Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, notes that taking on the United States has been a big part of Putin’s success at home.
“His strong response to both the soft questions from the domesticated Russian media and the challenges from foreign journalists will win points at home among those Russians who share his conviction that the West is the dangerous, unpredictable and aggressive part of the relationship,” he says. .
Of course, Wednesday’s events also play into a longer narrative that has taken hold over the past decade: The West, no matter how harsh it talks about Russia, has largely been unable to control Putin and his allies. In the eyes of Putin’s opponents, there have not been enough repercussions for a man who poisons political opponents, meddles in other countries’ elections, supports Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in bombing his own country, and annexes foreign territory.
In the eyes of many of his supporters, Putin’s meeting with the US president will seem like proof that Russia’s leader is fully justified in his actions. They can argue that it has reasonably agreed to work with the United States on big international issues like security and reestablishing conventional diplomatic channels. And he managed to do it while highlighting the shortcomings of American society and defending his own.
The summit has also given Putin an opportunity to stem the fallout from the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington, as the United States may now be reluctant to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia or reprimand Putin for arresting dissidents at home. . All of which could come in handy when Russia holds parliamentary elections later this year.
In short, Putin went to Geneva and got exactly what he wanted. And he left Switzerland with a great diplomatic victory, simply by showing up there.