By Amb Anil Trigunayat,
It was a disappointment for the hawks and honks who could not get the soundbite they were hankering for. But it was a meeting between the two experienced professionals of foreign policy and strategic priorities. They are also practitioners of realpolitik. Hence, despite the early comments of “killer and no soul” it was the interaction for real reckoning and to eke out the perceived advantage each superpower wanted for its domestic consumption and core interests and concerns. ‘Killer instinct ” was not on display, but a frank and direct throw of cards was on the table. Did one expect great outcomes, of course not! But the bar was so low that the fact that the meeting took place between President Biden and President Putin, in Geneva courtesy the Swiss President, was in itself a significant achievement. What was agreed upon was the cherry on the cake? To begin with, both know and want that it is incumbent upon both powers to ensure the strategic stability and avoid unwinnable nuclear confrontation at any cost. Even there China must be a factor. Dialogue is a linear instrument to achieve a modus vivendi. One word for the meeting was “Constructive”.
There have been serious and important issues and concerns for President Biden including alleged Russian Cyber meddling in US elections and attacks on critical utilities; human rights violations especially pertaining to the jailed opposition leader Alexi Navalny, whom President Putin considers a western proxy; Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, Iran, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan; US prisoners in Russia; as well as free access to the climate change afflicted Arctic region. They also discussed other regional and global issues including reining in Arms race of WMDs and nuclear weapons and extension of the New Start Treaty to 2024. Unbridled growth of China and its hegemonistic behaviour and the fact that it was also disharmonious to Russia’s economic growth was belaboured by President Biden. These were difficult issues but were put on the table in a manner that President Putin patiently heard and persuasively argued the way out where it was possible and where it was not more verifiable data and facts rather than accusations were requested.
On the Cyber security issue, President Biden shared a list of 16 installations which were ‘off limits’ at all times. While both sides agreed to establish mechanism to verifiably address and redress these cyber-attacks in a time bound manner, Putin played the ball back in the US court stating that most cyber attacks in the world come from US cyberspace followed by Canada, and two Latin American countries and the UK arguing that Russia had complained against 35 cyber-attacks as compared to 10 US requests but no response was received from US. Putin, however, wanted to dispense with the resort to conspiracy theories and work jointly to counter such attacks in the US and Russian interests in this domain. Cyber warfare and intervention in domestic politics of each other is a pastime of all powerful countries. Only a novice will ignore that at his peril. Surprisingly both sides did not mention China in this regard whose technological prowess and cyber capabilities are every one’s envy. Can the Ransomware not be skippered while human cloning and coronisation of the virus are already haunting the world?
The Arctic region is likely to be the next zone of contestation more or less on similar lines as the free and open Indo Pacific where China has been replaced by Russia as the dominant power. Putin claimed that Russia was not indulging in any hegemonistic practices in the Arctic and that US concerns regarding militarisation are ‘absolutely groundless’. He reiterated that Russia and the US can and should work together while confirming that Russia was upgrading its modern infrastructure especially pertaining to borders and controls and to address emergency situations in the Arctic. Well, this will remain an area of concern in times to come as the strategic exploitation of the region begins. Only recently Russia took over the chair of the Arctic Council. Likewise, they discussed the trade issues and Putin argued that as a result of restrictions both sides suffered while pointing out that at the recently held St Petersburg Economic Forum (Russian Davos) , the US was the largest delegation with over 200 participants and that bilateral trade had in fact increased by 16.5% this year . Biden on his part appeared to have subtly flagged the limitations of Russia’s closer partnership with China which might not be to the former’s economic advantage.
On human rights, democracy and voice and freedom for opposition Putin did not give in much and in fact referred to the issues being faced by the US democracy itself and that he would not want a repeat of the same in Russia. He also recalled the US Congress’s decisions to support certain political organisations (including Navalny) in Russia while terming Russia as an enemy state. And that he would not brook any interference in Russia’s internal affairs, irrespective of the unilateral US and European sanctions or media commentaries .Essentially, implying that whose houses are made of glass do not throw stones at others. On the issue of prisoner swaps and several other concerns it was agreed to carry forward the discussion at the foreign office level. Both sides also decided to restore their ambassadors and the key dialogue mechanisms.
One of the most important objectives for Biden was to work on stability and predictability in bilateral relationship which is essential to avert a major disaster and to calibrate expectations. Putin maintained that for the situation to be really stable it was important to coordinate the rules of conduct in all spheres be it strategic stability, cyber security and the settlement of regional conflicts. Hence as mentioned by both sides and in the Joint Statement they agreed to establish an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue (IBSSD) that will be deliberate and robust. Rather an uncommon nomenclature, but it surely points to the complexity and intricacies of the competitive relationship where cooperation is being underscored and dialogue is being reemphasised.
President Biden summed it up that “I have done what I wanted to “. In essence he wanted the US to be back on the global stage. He started renewing the Atlantic Charter and with the visits to UK, G 7, EU and NATO tried to recommit US involvement in the European architecture while identifying and coagulating western concerns and commitment against the Chinese and other global threats and challenges. His predecessor Trump had junked them all and had a special disdain for G7-an “outdated group of countries”. Although it was his turn to host them, it is possible that apart from the four guest countries (completing the Quad) he might have invited Putin to that Summit. But the “Build Back Better” theme needs collaboration with the “worthy adversaries “as well since the interdependencies are there to stay. China is surely concerned with these developments. Global Times concluded that China is a part of the “strategic triangle” with US and Russia and the current bad relations between US and China and Russia are the results of Washington’s hegemony. As for Russia, Putin reassured Russia’s global power status and some brownie points for domestic consumption. In the meantime, both leaders have developed a newfound respect for the other as both would wait to eat the pudding and see if it tastes better.
It is a given that a genuine modus vivendi is desirable for global peace and stability. Many of the hotspots could be cooled off. Major challenges can ideally be fought better. India must be happier with these developments because her Quad connectivity and enhanced Global and comprehensive strategic partnership with US makes Moscow cautious while India’s special and privileged partnership with Russia especially in defence sector and purchase of S-400 ,despite foundation agreements with US and the CAATSA sanctions threat, make US uncomfortable . If the situation is somewhat normalised between Moscow and Washington DC , extraneous efforts of New Delhi to alleviate the concerns of either side could be obviated and India could be happier with her strategic autonomy or multi-alignment posturing that serves her national interest while staying relevant in the global scheme of things.
(The author is Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta. Currently he is President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)