US and Russia inch forward in Geneva talks

June 17, 2021 | 15:16
US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin emerged from their summit on Wednesday with the Russian leader calling the talks “constructive” and Biden agreeing they were “positive.” But separate news conferences made clear that the two sides remain at odds over cyberattacks, Ukraine, and several other issues.
US  , Russia  , cybersecurity  , conference  ,
US President Biden and Russian President Putin at the talks in Geneva

The leaders of the US and Russia issued a joint statement explaining their objective to work towards a more stable and predictable relationship between the two countries, which included the aim to lower the threat of nuclear war.

“Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the statement said.

The presidents also noted the US and Russia would continue working together on future arms control through “an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust.”

The statement continued the countries have “demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.”

But in separate press conferences after the talks, very different angles were taken. Biden brought up Ukraine and told the Russian president that the US would maintain an “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

“We agreed to pursue diplomacy related to the Minsk agreement,” Biden said, referring to a peace deal negotiated in 2015 between Russia and Ukraine. “The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”

Meanwhile Putin continued to disavow any responsibility for cyberattacks conducted from Russian soil, and deflected on the issue by accusing the US of carrying out cyber aggression.

“Most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States,” Putin said, adding that Canada, Latin America, and then Britain followed. “Russia is not on the list.”

In the aftermath of the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, the largest US pipeline system for refined oil products, Biden said he and Putin talked about the “proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyberattack, period.”

The US leader said he gave Putin a list of 16 specific entities defined as critical infrastructure under US policy, from water to energy systems. “Of course the principle is one thing, but it has to be backed up by practice,” Biden explained.

He said the two agreed to ensure experts in both countries “work on specific understandings of what’s off limits and to follow up on specific cases” in each country.

Asked what he would do if Russia refused to forgo attacking critical infrastructure, Biden said, “I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capabilities. He doesn’t know exactly what it is but he knows it’s significant. If in fact they violate these basic norms we will respond, he knows, in a cyber way.”

They also agreed to send their ambassadors back to each other’s capital cities. Russia had recalled its envoy after Biden said earlier this year that he thought Putin was a “killer”, and the US recalled its ambassador soon after. Putin said on Wednesday that he was satisfied by Biden’s explanation of use of the phrase.

Meanwhile, both leaders said they shared a responsibility for nuclear stability and would later hold talks on potential changes to a recently-extended arms treaty.

In February, the two countries extended the New START arms limitation treaty for five years. The treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads they can deploy and limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers used to deliver them.

C. Raja Mohan, director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, explained before the summit that it was hard to judge the impact the summit could have on geopolitical movements and hopes within the Asian continent.

“Better relations between the United States and Russia will certainly make it easier for India, for example, to balance an increasingly aggressive China. And while India might be especially enthusiastic about a US-Russian detente, it is not alone in Asia,” Mohan said. “Many others in the region believe that an independent Russian role will create more wiggle room for themselves in the emerging confrontation between China and the United States.”

Mohan was correct to point out, however, that both Washington and Moscow downplayed expectations for the summit and that various complex issues continue to affect the US-Russia relationship. “If China’s fears of the United States drawing Russia away from its influence are far-fetched, it may be similarly unrealistic for the rest of Asia to hope for an early and significant reset of the triangular dynamic between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow,” Mohan explained.

Reducing tensions with Russia should make it easier for Europe to pay greater attention to Asia and back US efforts to balance China, Mohan wrote for Foreign Policy. “India, along with Japan, is stepping up efforts to draw the European powers, including Britain, back into the Asian security order,” Mohan said. “While the EU and key member states are beginning to develop new approaches to the Indo-Pacific and recognise the systemic challenges presented by China, their potential contribution to Asian security will be limited by the more proximate threats from Russia.”

US-Russia relations have been in a backwards shift for years, most notably thanks to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria, and US accusations, which are denied by Moscow, of interfering in the 2016 election won by former president Donald Trump.

By Quang Hai

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