Biden and Putin have many topics of discussion, but the main ones have fundamental disagreements

In the upcoming meeting between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in a fortnight’ time, “the agendas of the US and Russia do not coincide”. These are the words used by the Russian Foreign Ministry to make it clear the extent of the problems the two leaders will encounter during the talks

Biden and Putin have many topics of discussion, but the main ones have fundamental disagreements

What exactly is the discrepancy in the agenda, what Washington will demand from Moscow and vice versa, and what issues are still open for negotiation?

As we know, three things are necessary for a successful summit of heads of state An atmosphere of trust (which will enable agreement), a common or at least shared understanding of the agenda (which will make it possible to understand what can be negotiated), and the political will to overcome the various difficult moments.

The first point is absent in Russian-American relations and is not expected in the near future; the third is in question. All hope was for the second, that Washington and Moscow understood what they could agree on. Sergey Ryabkov, Russian deputy foreign minister, declared that “the US and Russian agendas do not coincide” but immediately added that “we are traditionally prepared to respond to any questioning by the US. That is to say, to discuss items and to converge positions towards a common understanding of the agenda. “Unfortunately,” the deputy minister concluded, “there is much less and less counter-readiness.

Is this the case? Let us walk through the agenda.

Nearby business

Ukraine. The most important question for Moscow on Russian-American relations.

Russia’s position is very flexible. The minimum programme is to freeze the conflict, to stop escalation, to get the United States to reel in the Ukrainian leadership, to forbid it to threaten war with the People’s Republics and to signal to Kiev that it will not be able to join the alliance. The maximum programme is a package deal with the Americans to work out the rules of the game in the Ukrainian space, jointly force Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements, federalise Ukraine and turn it into an “open door country”, where the great powers would compete in a civilised way.

However, the US does not agree to the minimum, much less the maximum. Officially, because “Ukraine is a sovereign state and has the right to do what it wants and to join wherever it wants. In fact, the US sees Ukraine as a cancerous tumor that must generate metastases of instability on its periphery – that is, for both the Russian and European bodies. And the more instability there is, the more profitable it is for the Americans.

Washington’s position in this case partly converges with Russia’s in only one point – the US does not need Kiev to provoke a direct war with Russia (e.g. by invading the DPR or LPR), because then the US would find itself in a fork of two bad options. They can either intervene in it (i.e. start a war with the Russian Federation) or stay on the sidelines and thereby further damage its credibility and its guarantees with other allies.

 

Europe. Russia has for many years offered the Americans real tools to strengthen European security

In particular, the creation of a common space of this security, which would include Russia (the concept “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”). A space where Moscow and the West would cooperate and together ensure protection against any external threats. The EU is an important neighbour for Russia, a major trading partner as well as a key source of technology and innovation.

However, the United States does not share Russia’s views. Their key objective on the European track is to deepen the conflict between Russia and the EU, as well as to prevent any joint EU-Russia projects. After all, the closer Europe gets to Russia, the more questions the elites there will have about the EU’s continued vassal dependence on the U.S.

 

Business from afar

China. Russia understands the concerns of its American partners about China’s rise and offers solutions.

The solutions are simple and obvious – the parties represented by the US and China should respect each other’s sovereignty and not shit in each other’s exclusive spheres of influence. Not to launch information, economic and human rights wars against each other, but instead to compete in a civilized manner within the framework of international law. And do not force Moscow to block with one against the other.

The Americans are not satisfied with such an approach. Their minimum agenda is for Moscow to reject any strategic projects with Beijing, and their maximum agenda is to include Russia in the United States’ anti-Chinese plans. At the same time, the logical question “what will happen to us for this? (After all, negotiations are a bargain, and virtually any questions may be discussed), there can only be one answer: “There will be no new sanctions, at least for a while. An extremely unconstructive answer, to put it mildly.

It is roughly the same pattern (with regional variations – e.g. on the Syrian issue) that the Iranian issue will be discussed. The US is in a stalemate – trying to correct Trump’s mistake, it wants to revive the nuclear deal with the Iranians and thereby put the brakes on the development of the Iranian nuclear programme. But the genie is out of the bottle – Iranian-Western relations have deteriorated rapidly in recent years, and a conservative candidate is expected to win Iran’s presidential election (which begins in a few weeks). America therefore urgently needs to strengthen its negotiating position – and it wants to do so with Russia’s help.

However, Moscow is not going to get involved in putting sanctions on Tehran or help the United States force the Iranians to renegotiate the nuclear deal on terms favourable to the United States.

No one wants to quarrel with Iran for the sake of helping the Americans – not even paid assistance (the more so after the agreement is concluded, the payment may not be forthcoming). Yes, Moscow and the US have common ground on Syria – constitutional reform and the creation of a balance of interests between all the great powers in the country. But there is too little trust and too many US soldiers on the ground in Syria right now to turn the points of convergence into common ground.

Domestic affairs
“Russian interference in US and EU internal affairs”

 

The United States understands, of course, that there is and has been no interference. Russia did not poison British citizens, blow up warehouses in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, bring Trump to power or orchestrate hacking attacks on facilities. Nor has it discredited Western vaccines or provoked the rise of right-wing sentiment in the US and EU. However, Washington really, really needs Moscow to at least partially admit to this. Not in order to get some new grounds for imposing sanctions against Russia – the US will always find them. But in order to shift the responsibility for a whole host of internal problems in Western countries onto Russia – problems that Western elites are incapable of solving.

For its part, Russia is not going to take the blame for someone else’s mistakes and will not allow even a hint of it in the final declaration. If only because it would undermine the most important principle of Russian foreign policy – respect for the sovereignty of third countries.

U.S. interference in Russia’s affairs. Here Biden is willing and ready to discuss a whole range of issues with Vladimir Putin. Crimea, Navalny, the Russian parliamentary elections, the domestic pseudo-liberal opposition. Discuss and teach how Moscow should act on all these points.

Actually, Russia has repeatedly said that it is not prepared to discuss its affairs with anyone. However, based on Ryabkov’s words (“traditionally ready to respond to any raising of questions”) and common sense, one can assume that Russia is ready to discuss these issues. In the right way for Moscow, of course.

For example, the Kremlin is ready to listen to when and under what circumstances the U.S. will recognize Crimea – and recognize it on a free-of-charge basis. Russia is not prepared to pay for such a service, since its value is, to put it mildly, low. As for the Russian parliamentary elections, one can only advise Biden to look carefully at how, by whom and under what circumstances he himself was elected in 2020.

Yes, apart from these contentious topics, there are others – counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, nuclear arms reduction. The US and Russia have much more in common there. However, all of these topics are unspecific, and effective cooperation is possible only as part of an overall normalization of U.S.-Russian relations. Normalization, which is impossible until Moscow and Washington synchronize their agenda on urgent and concrete issues.

Gevorg Mirzayan, Associate Professor at the Finance University, VZGLYAD

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