Week of June 21, 2021

Biden’s First Trip OverseasPart Two


Biden’s trip to the G-7 meeting, the NATO gathering, and finally the summit with Russian President Putin was hailed as an “America is back” tour.  However, the tour showed to the world an American president that is in his dotage.

From being led out of a restaurant by First Lady Jill Biden, to confusing Libya with Syria, to embarrassing press conferences, to shouting at a CNN reporter who asked an inconvenient question, foreigners saw a president far different than the one covered by the American media.

One member of Parliament, who never had good things to say about President Trump in the past said of the former president, “At least he could stay awake in meetings.

While the G-7 meeting was limited to six other world leaders, the NATO meeting was more difficult.  Several Eastern European nations like Poland remain pro-Trump, even though they agree with Biden that Russia remains a major threat.

Biden’s most important task was to reassure NATO allies, after his predecessor had threatened several members for not paying their fair share, that the US remained committed to NATO.

One thing rarely mentioned at this meeting was that the number of NATO nations that had raised their defense commitment to 2% of their GDP had grown under the Trump Administration.

Much of the NATO meeting targeted Russia.  Biden noted in his press conference that, “I’m going to make it clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses.  And, if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond.  We will respond in kind.

One topic that came up in the NATO talks was Belarus.  Events came to a head recently when Belarus fighter aircraft forced a commercial aircraft flying in its airspace to land to arrest an opponent of the current Belarus regime.

There is growing concern that Belarus could join Russia in an attack on the Ukraine.  Belarus also borders NATO members Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus has had close relations with Russia.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stollenberg told an audience that NATO was prepared “to protect and defend any ally against any kind of threat coming from Minsk and Moscow.”

Lithuanian President Nauseda said of Belarus, “We see that this country is losing its last elements of independence and could be used in the hands of Russia as a weapon…for foreign aggressive activities towards NATO allies.”

Despite these warnings about Russia and Belarus, the Ukrainian request to join NATO was put off as Biden said Ukraine was not ready to join alliance.  Government corruption was cited as a reason.

China was not left out.  A NATO communiqué warned that the rising power of China presents “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”  “We remain concerned with China’s frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation,” the document said,

While there was the focus on Russia, one important part of the NATO meeting was the face-to-face meeting between Erdogan and Biden.  There has been considerable tension between the two nations after Turkey bought a Russian S-400 air defense system and the US cancelled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter aircraft.

While the Biden-Erdogan meeting was described as “positive and productive” by Biden, many issues like the Armenian genocide remain stumbling blocks to better US-Turkish relations.

“We had detailed discussions about how to proceed on a number of issues,” Biden said.  “Our two countries have big agendas.”

Although Syria was undoubtedly on the agenda, neither leader was willing to give details on the discussions.  Biden indicated that the two nations will establish diplomatic teams to try to work out solutions to Syria and other bilateral issues.


Meeting Putin

Although the G-7 and NATO meetings were important, the highlight of the trip was the meeting with Putin in Switzerland.  Bilateral meeting between US and Russian leaders have been a regular event for over 60 years.

Before the meeting, the question was how aggressive Biden would be with Putin and his aggressive foreign policy.

However, everyone had forgotten that Russia could play the aggressive card just as well.  While Biden and Putin were meeting, Russia was holding the biggest Pacific exercise since the Cold War just 300 miles off the coast of Hawaii.  The exercise forced the US Air Force to scramble F-22 stealth fighters from its base in Hawaii to intercept a contingent of Russian military forces that included long range bombers, surface ships, and anti-submarine aircraft.

Although the Russian aircraft did not enter the US Air Defense Identification Zone, the provocation was clear.  Since the Cold War, Russia has limited its military reach to territories close by.  By holding military exercises close to the US they are clearly indicating that Russia has once again become a military power with global reach.  And, by holding these exercises in the Pacific, they are indicating that they can have an impact in current disputes with China in the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Although Russia and the US have many issues to discuss, ranging from the Ukraine to nuclear arms limitations, the meeting between Putin and Biden was shorter than planned – just two and a half hours instead of the planned five hours.

The shortness of the meeting indicated the lack of agreement between the two on most issues.  In a post meeting briefing by a State Department official, the discussions were described as “very direct,” which is diplomatic speak for a lack of cordiality and willingness to negotiate.  Later, the official said, “We are not flipping a light switch,” which indicates that serious negotiations are needed in the future.

Given the number of subjects that the State Department official mentioned as being discussed, it was clear that each issue was probably only given a few minutes in the short 150-minute meeting.  Some of the subjects were Afghanistan, Belarus, the Ukraine, Covid, Freedom of Navigations, China, media foreign agents, Climate, Cybersecurity, Restoring ambassadors in both countries, electronic attacks on American personnel like those seen in Havana Cuba, The Russian gas pipeline, the Arctic, nuclear weapons negotiations, Iran, and the humanitarian corridor in Syria.

This does not include the list of 16 infrastructure targets that Biden said should be “off Limits” to cyberattack.

Putin also had issues that he brought to the table, including the growing number of NATO warships that are entering and patrolling the Black Sea, once considered a “Russian lake.”  During the summit meeting US and NATO warships were patrolling the Black Sea.

Clearly, there was little time to hold meaningful discussions on any subject.  In fact, the State Department merely referred to “forward motion” from the summit.

However, the meeting was not a loss.  Russia and the US agreed to return ambassadors, which will make additional negotiations easier.  They will begin consultations on cybersecurity, a point that the US considered critical.

Other issues included an exchange of convicts and mutual recognition of covid-19 vaccines.

The two leaders also released a document calling for strategic stability and pledged future talks on arms control and reducing the risk of war.

So, how was Biden’s first trip overseas?  Although his meetings had their fair share of gaffs, it wasn’t as bad as some thought it would be.  Biden’s staff kept him on subject and kept him away from embarrassing questions.

The G-7 meeting was bland, especially as the same people were to meet a day later at the NATO conference.  There were the usual pledges to act on issues like climate control, but the only big agreement was on a global corporate tax (and that will need ratification by the counties’ legislatures).

The NATO meeting was more important given the number of potential flash points across Europe and the world.  The focus was on Russia, as it has been since the end of WWII.  The Ukraine and the Baltic states remain at risk.  However, this time, Belarus was added to the list of concerns.

The meeting with Putin could be better than some of the US-Soviet meetings of the last 60 plus years.  However, it did not rank as one of the best.

While US-Russian relations usually focused on nuclear arms treaties, today’s US-Russian relations are more complex.  Russia is now part of the world economic system, so economic issues must be considered.

Both nations have interests that collide.  Russia considers Syria as its most important ally in the Middle East and is committed to keeping the legitimate President Assad in control despite US desires and hundreds of US troops on the ground in Syria.

China remains a difficult issue.  Russia wants good relations with China to offset the decades of good US-China relations.  However, Biden is hoping and counting on the notion that Russia sees China as a competitor in many areas like the Arctic and Northern Pacific.  And that Russia remembers several border incidents several decades ago.

Then, there is the desire of Putin to restore the grandeur of the Soviet Empire.  That includes reducing US influence around the globe.

One the other hand, the US also wants to reduce Russian influence.

These problems remain.  However, the joint decision to return ambassadors means that Russia and the US are talking again at a diplomatic level.  And ambassadors and embassy staff that talk to each other daily is more important than 2 ½ hour talks between Putin and Biden. It seems that the next 6-9 months ahead are crucial test of the future direction of US-Russian relations.