The Geneva Summit between President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Joe Biden of the United States had several dimensions.
On the one hand, it was supposed to give us an idea of how the relations between the two largest nuclear powers—largely determining the overall state of global security—would develop. On the other hand, and no less importantly, the meeting was to serve as a crude indicator of the main trends in global politics. This is why, politicians, journalists and experts continue to focus on the outcomes of the summit and its possible significance for international relations.
As for the bilateral U.S.–Russia relations, the summit appears to have lived up to the quite realistic expectations of the parties. Following a protracted and a very deep nosedive, it would have been too far-fetched to expect any explicit commitments to emerge—ones capable of turning the bilateral relations towards constructive cooperation. There clearly was not enough time to prepare such commitments either. Strictly speaking, no one expected any comprehensive documents to be signed. At the same time, the two presidents adopted a joint statement following the talks, setting down a series of fundamental positions and objectives; their implementation could lead to specific arrangements as well as some headway on strategic stability.
The presidents reaffirmed their commitment to the principle that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This intuitive statement does, in fact, carry tremendous meaning. Recent years have seen heated discussions revolving around the military doctrines of the two nations. There has been much speculation that the first strike option should not be abandoned under certain circumstances, too. These debates have taken place against the backdrop of a deteriorating treaty-based framework of nuclear arms control and overall bilateral dialogue, which has significantly increased the risk of an unintended conflict that could involve nuclear weapons. With the willingness of the two leading nuclear powers to work together to prevent a nuclear disaster confirmed at the top level, this could serve as a foundation for an entire range of practical steps to reduce the risk nuclear weapons being used. Besides, this willingness will come to bolster the non-proliferation regime.
The Russian and U.S. leaders admitted that strategic predictability is the only thing that can reduce the risk of military confrontation and the threat of nuclear war. This was the case during the tensest years of the Cold War. Today, when security challenges are becoming increasingly complex and risks are growing progressively acute as the militaries introduce new cutting-edge technologies, predictability turns into one of the decisive factors in reducing risks and rebuilding trust.
How can we achieve predictability in our fundamentally unstable world? Intensive negotiations—involving diplomats, military personnel and scientists—as well as coordinating and approving documents that would allow the parties to exercise effective control and verification in the agreed areas are the only option to make it possible. Following the important political commitments demonstrated in Geneva, front stage should now be given to experts who, having extensive knowledge in the subject matter of the talks, could put forward their proposals on how to stabilize the nuclear arms balance. Predictability goes hand-in-hand with trust; one is impossible without the other.
As for the practical steps, the presidents agreed to launch a comprehensive dialogue on strategic stability without delay that should, further down the road, lay the foundations for an arms control regime of the future. The difficulty of such a dialogue and its fundamental difference from similar mechanisms of the past lies, primarily, in the need to conduct talks in several areas at once, including nuclear and conventional strategic arms, missile defence systems, cyber arms, space systems and many other things. To the best of our knowledge, Russia has already presented its ideas on the relevant bilateral working groups; we shall hope that Washington will not drag its heels in responding to these ideas.
It was no accident that strategic stability issues were the focus of the U.S.–Russia summit. The absence of mutual understanding in this area would make it virtually impossible to talk about any bilateral cooperation on particular issues of global or regional dimensions. When such understanding is there, compromises stand a chance, even in those areas where the interests of the parties significantly diverge.
As often happens, the bilateral relations are moving towards an equally important period, when the agreements reached by the two presidents will have to be implemented. Bureaucracies throughout the world have one common feature: they are well-versed in delaying the implementation of political initiatives while seamlessly shifting the responsibility for such actions onto the other party. This has happened many times in the U.S.–Russia relations. This danger is particularly imminent today, as there are plenty of pessimists on both sides who do not believe in any progress in the bilateral relations. It is, therefore, important that a detailed schedule for implementing Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden’s commitments be immediately drawn up and that a strict personal control be instituted over the efforts of the ministries and agencies concerned. Then, and only then can a set of specific documents be prepared for the next summit, and it should not be delayed either.
For obvious reasons, the significance of the U.S.–Russia Geneva summit goes far beyond their bilateral relations. The summit has already become an important factor exerting a positive effect on the overall political situation in the international community.
From our partner RIAC