The summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva has seemingly gone off quite well, without any fireworks coming into them. Both leaders have expressed cautious optimism about the future course of relations between their two countries and there will be a moment, sooner rather than later, when their ambassadors in each other's capital will go back to duty.
Summits between American and Russian leaders, dating back to the Cold War, have always evinced global interest. In the times when the Soviet Union, as the world's second superpower, was around, it was generally a matter of conjecture as to when the top leaders in Moscow and Washington would meet on such issues as arms limitation and, in broad measure, on how they meant to establish a relationship of mutual accommodation.
It takes one back to the era of the Vietnam War, when Soviet-US relations were put to a grave test over the escalation of the conflict by the Johnson administration in Washington. Not much of an interaction was there between Moscow and Washington, at the top levels, at the time, save the fact that Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had a pretty uneventful meeting with President Lyndon Johnson in Glassboro, New Jersey, in 1967. The meeting aroused media interest because it had come for the very first time since Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy had an uncomfortable meeting in Vienna in 1961.
The young American president was quite out of his depth as the Soviet leader tried to dominate the proceedings through taking advantage of Kennedy's inexperience in foreign policy. Earlier in 1959, Khrushchev had toured the US on a state visit. But one needs to remember that the following year, 1960, a planned return visit by President Dwight Eisenhower to Moscow was scuttled by the shooting down of a U-2 plane, piloted by the American Francis Gary Powers and taking off from an American base in Pakistan's Peshawar, over Soviet territory.
US-Soviet summitry took on a new dimension in the 1970s, with President Richard Nixon visiting Moscow in May 1972, months after his visit to Beijing, and seeking to put Washington's ties with Moscow on an even keel. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev got along famously well, and the latter in turn visited Washington the next year. It was a time when the Watergate crisis was beginning to unfold and would in the subsequent two years bring Nixon's presidency to a crashing end. In November 1974, a few months after Nixon's resignation, President Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev met in Vladivostok, the goal being to add more substance to the arms limitation talks reached through the earlier Nixon-Brezhnev interaction. In June 1979, Brezhnev and US President Jimmy Carter met in Vienna, where they signed the SALT-II agreement.
A few months later, in December 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan introduced a dangerous element in Washington-Moscow ties. It would be quite a few years before American and Soviet leaders engaged in summitry again. The election of the rightwing Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 could only worsen relations between the two countries --- and it did. Besides, President Reagan was unable to meet any of the three Soviet leaders --- Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko --- as they died in rapid succession between 1982 and 1985. But the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985, with his policies of glasnost and perestroika, gave a new spurt to summitry. Beginning with a summit in Geneva in November 1985, Gorbachev and Reagan, always wary of each other, nevertheless met a few more times before George H.W. Bush succeeded the latter.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 diminished Moscow's global position, given that it no more had the clout of a superpower. Even so, summit meetings took place between the men who followed the senior Bush in Washington and Gorbachev in Moscow. President Bill Clinton enjoyed a sense of camaraderie with the ineffectual Boris Yeltsin and later would meet Vladimir Putin. In June 2001, President George W. Bush would meet Putin in Slovenia and would make the famous remark: 'I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy --- I was able to get a sense of his soul.'
That was in contrast to how his successor Barack Obama felt about Putin. Meeting the Soviet leader on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in 2016, Obama was not subtle about the experience, describing the meeting with the Russian leader as 'candid, blunt and businesslike.' For Donald Trump in 2018, things would be quite different, given that Moscow was being held responsible for interfering with the US presidential election in 2016. Trump's lack of firmness with Putin, indeed his poor understanding of geopolitics, only strengthened the notion that he was beholden to the Russian leader for favours that are not yet known but are suspected. It was again in light of new allegations that the Russians had tried undermining Joe Biden at the election of 2020 that the new American leader and Putin met in Geneva this week.
Diplomacy between Moscow and Washington, since the end of the Second World War, has largely rested on mutual suspicion, with leaders of the two countries staking out positions affecting the entirety of the geopolitical landscape. There has never been trust between the United States and the Soviet Union and later between the Russian Federation and the United States. It has always been a matter of mutual accommodation between the two countries, a question of 'you stay in your sphere of influence and I will stay in mine.' No crossing of the red lines would be tolerated.
That appears to be the message coming out of the meeting between Biden and Putin. Both men are hardened politicians, with decades of experience behind them. Biden has been a Washington pro since he was first elected a senator in 1972, a career built on a thorough understanding of foreign policy. Putin has been the symbol of post-Soviet Russia, alternately as president and prime minister, over the past two decades. It was polite but tough talking the two leaders engaged in on Wednesday. The template may have shifted a little, but not much.