President Joe Biden (L) and President Vladimir Putin.

Getty Images

When President Joe Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday, it will be one of the most watched geopolitical plays of the year.

Biden’s summit with Putin in Switzerland, chosen for its history of political neutrality, won’t be the first time the two have met. But it will be their first meeting since Biden became US president, the so-called leader of the free world.

The Biden-Putin summit is expected to take on a completely different tone than the meeting between then President Donald Trump and Putin in Helsinki in July 2018. Trump insisted that the two leaders meet with no helpers present at the beginning of the summit – raising concerns that the former KGB officer would outperform his American counterpart.

This week’s meeting between Biden and Putin follows Biden’s first international trip as president, during which he affirmed alliances with G-7 leaders and NATO allies. At NATO headquarters, Biden told reporters that he had consulted with other world leaders in the days leading up to his meeting with Putin.

“Every world leader here, most of them mentioned it and thanked me for meeting Putin,” said Biden on Monday.

“I talked to them about what they thought was important and what they didn’t think was important,” he said, adding that his colleagues appreciated his transparency and coordination.

On Tuesday, a Kremlin adviser said nuclear stability, climate change and cybersecurity are on the summit’s agenda, Reuters reported, as well as the prospects for Russian and US citizens incarcerated in each other’s countries.

Still, the advisor said he wasn’t sure an agreement could be reached.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after the NATO summit on June 14, 2021 at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Navalny’s captivity

Russia is widely viewed in the West as a pariah following a series of incidents that Moscow has committed, or at least involved, in recent years that have generated international condemnation and criticism.

The confrontation over the imprisonment of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Russia is the latest in the already strained relations.

In January Navalny flew from Berlin to Russia, where he had recovered for almost half a year after being poisoned in Russia last summer. He was arrested at passport control. A month later, a Russian court sentenced Navalny to more than two years in prison for violating parole terms.

A still from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, accused of disregarding the conditions of a suspended sentence for embezzlement, during the delivery of a court verdict in Moscow on February 2, 2021.

Simonovsky District Court | via Reuters

In September the German government announced that the Russian dissident had been poisoned by a chemical neurotoxin and described the toxicological report as “clear evidence”. The nerve agent belonged to the Novichok family, which was developed by the Soviet Union. Toxicological tests carried out in France and Sweden also came to the same conclusion.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it was involved in the poisoning of Navalny. The West has repeatedly asked Moscow to release Navalny immediately. Biden warned on Monday that Moscow’s relations with the rest of the world would deteriorate further if Navalny died in Russian custody.

In an interview with NBC News, Putin couldn’t guarantee Navalny would get out of prison alive.

“Look, such decisions are not made by the president in this country,” said Putin.

Hacking concerns

Biden is also expected to raise concerns about a number of ransomware attacks and other cybersecurity issues affecting Putin.

Last month, a hacking group called DarkSide with suspected links to Russian criminals launched a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, forcing the US company to shut down approximately 5,500 miles of the pipeline. It cut fuel supplies to the east coast in half and caused gasoline shortages in the southeast.

Gas pumps are cordoned off with an adhesive tape that indicates a petrol station in Washington, USA, on May 14, 2021, of a shortage of petrol.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Ransomware attacks involve malware that encrypts files on a device or network, rendering the system inoperable. Criminals behind such cyberattacks usually demand a ransom in exchange for the release of data.

After the DarkSide attack, Biden told reporters, “So far there is no evidence from our intelligence officials that Russia is involved, although there is evidence that the actor’s ransomware is in Russia. They have a certain responsibility to deal with it . ” He added that he would discuss the situation with Putin.

The Kremlin rejects allegations of launching cyberattacks against the United States.

In April, Washington imposed further sanctions on Russia for human rights abuses, widespread cyberattacks and attempts to influence the US elections. The Biden government also expelled ten officials from the Russian diplomatic mission in the United States.

Moscow rejects the US allegations and described the recent moves of the White House as a blow to bilateral relations.

In response to the US action, Russia has expelled 10 US diplomats from the US embassy in Moscow and sanctioned eight high-ranking US government officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.

Meanwhile, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project remains a bone of contention between the US and Russia (and indeed Europe), with Biden firmly opposed to the near-completed project.

No breakthrough moments?

In summary, there is much to be done for the US and Russia, but experts have little hope of “breakthrough” moments in Putin and Biden’s talks.

Fabrice Pothier, chief strategy officer at Rasmussen Global, told CNBC on Tuesday that Biden had “not set the bar very high” when it came to the upcoming summit.

“Concrete results? I don’t think so,” noted Pothier.

Chris Weafer, CEO of Moscow-based consulting firm Macro-Advisory, said that “expectations for a breakthrough are low” and that the term commonly used to describe expectations is “a hoped-for return to ‘predictable strategic stability'”.

Weafer noted that in Russia the US is expected to impose more sanctions on the country, but that “the hope is that these will be relatively mild and irrelevant to the economy and multinational corporations in Russia”.

Although little is expected beyond cooperation in strategic areas such as nuclear weapons control, Weafer said the main positive outcome of the summit would be Russia’s removing the US from its list of “unfriendly” states (i.e., those that as “unfriendly actions” carried out against Russia, its nationals or companies).

“This would allow a return to the normalcy of the staff of the respective embassies and consulates as well as the political and diplomatic engagement,” added Weafer.

“Framework for future connections”

Andrius Tursa, Central and Eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence, agreed that the summit “will not bring about a breakthrough in bilateral relations, but symbolic agreements to restore trust are possible”.

More than anything, he expected to outline a “framework for future connections”.

“The US-initiated summit is likely to aim to restore personal ties between the two presidents and outline a broader framework for the conduct of bilateral relations during Biden’s presidency,” Tursa said in a statement on Tuesday.

While both sides have an interest in a more stable and predictable relationship in certain areas of global diplomacy, such as deepening arms control agreements and combating climate change, expectations for this first meeting should be more subdued, Tursa said.

“Strategic stability is an area where both sides could seek greater cooperation,” he said.

“In recent years, both countries have withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Missile Treaty (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, which reduces transparency and increases risks. Although Moscow and Washington extended the New START treaty to February 2026 earlier this year, it doesn’t cover a range of modern weapons systems as well as emerging nuclear powers like China. However, given the importance and complexity of the subject, it may be too optimistic to expect rapid progress in this area. “

He stressed that both sides had also cited climate change, cyberterrorism, the coronavirus pandemic and various regional conflicts as other potential topics for discussion.

“As with strategic stability, no quick breakthroughs are to be expected in any of these areas. In fact, even small steps to restore trust between the two countries – such as the planned exchange of cyber criminals or a partial re-establishment of diplomatic relations – would be a success, “added Tursa.

– Holly Ellyatt reports from London. Amanda Macias reported from Washington.