U.S. President Joe Biden may believe Russia is “desperately trying” to retain its status “as a major world power,” but Russian and Ukrainian analysts contend that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary target audience for the two leaders’ June 16 summit was not the world, but Russia itself.
“Putin always works for the Russian audience,” commented Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Davyduk, in reference to Biden and Putin’s discussions about Ukraine and Russia’s territorial disputes. “He rarely cares what other countries think about him. He rarely cares what other countries say about him.”
Nonetheless, he does care about how his image resonates at home, other analysts say.
The Geneva summit occurred nearly three months ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections. The ruling United Russia party is not expected to lose the September 19 vote, but, amidst a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic and an economic slump, plus recent sporadic street protests, the election results could reinforce the 68-year-old Putin’s political arsenal should he run for reelection in 2024, an option he has not excluded.
Against this backdrop, Russian government-owned and associated news outlets, which dominate the country’s mediascape, actively advanced the notion on January 17 that Putin had prevailed at the Geneva summit. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s remarks to the right-wing U.S. broadcaster Fox News that the summit had been “a win for Putin” headlined summit coverage from such news outlets as RT and RIA Novosti.
State-run TV channel Rossia-1 also ran clips from a June 16 FoxNews discussion about body language in which commentator Raymond Arroyo described Putin as dominating the two leaders’ initial meeting “like a mafia don,” and Biden “ looking like he’s waiting for the family to pick him up at the [nursing] home.”
But Trump and state-funded Russian media were not the only ones calling the summit a win for Putin.
Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Arkady Dubnov also declared Putin the summit’s “winner.”
“The winner because we’ve again been recognized as equal to the United States,” said Dubnov, a critic of the Russian leader. “That’s the main victory. Before this, there were doubts about this, but now there aren’t.”
Russia analyst Nikolai Petrov at the London-based think tank Chatham House agreed: “The very fact of this meeting itself is very important for the Kremlin and the demonstration of Russia’s level as a power that can talk with the United States as an equal,” Petrov said. “And all the rest is already PR.”
Putin’s mission is not to “make some things known to President Biden,” he continued, but “to create a certain social-psychological background and prepare public opinion” in Russia.
The encounter, arranged at the White House’s initiative, took place after a series of news events that, to voters, could imply that the international community was marginalizing Russia as a villain.
From the imprisonment of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the victim of an alleged government-executed poisoning attack, to condemnations of Russian armed forces’ buildup in Crimea and along the Ukrainian border, Russia in 2021 has been more often on the defensive internationally than not.
“Putin wanted the summit,” commented Moscow political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin. “Putin wanted that the blockade on shaking his hand would be broken; his being on the periphery and his toxicity” would end.
The summit gave the Russian president that, and signified that “Putin has compelled [the U.S.] to talk with him,” added Oreshkin. “In any case, that’s how this will be presented.”
Significant progress, however, did not appear to be made in any of the complex issues discussed during the two leaders’ over three-hour-long meeting together with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Both sides touted an agreement to again exchange ambassadors, but those intentions were “known earlier,” commented Oreshkin. Plans to consult on cybersecurity and to launch a fresh stage of arms-control talks remain broad.
Other sensitive issues, from the treatment of Navalny to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, remain at a standstill. Only glancing attention appears to have been paid to Belarus, where pro-democracy protesters still challenge the Moscow-backed Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s claim that he won the 2020 presidential election.
Whether Putin took the initiative on any issue is not clear.
“That is, Putin voiced his position. Biden voiced his position, and now, in front of the press, he’s talking about the fact that he didn’t compromise on anything,” Oreshkin said of the Russian leader.
Rather, like the photos of Putin practicing judo, hang-gliding, or doing deep-sea dives, the emphasis is on showing that daunting challenges do not scare him.
By contrast, government-run Russian media largely presented the 78-year-old U.S. president as an elderly man inclined to fumbles and fatigue, and subject to derision at home (courtesy of FoxNews).
President Biden nearly referring to President Putin’s press conference as that of President Trump, and his momentary misnaming of Secretary of State Antony Blinken as his “foreign minister” received particular attention.
The Federal News Agency, a Kremlin-friendly outlet reportedly active in trolling, assumed a charitable tone: Biden’s “somewhat detached” appearance, attributed to stress and fatigue, was “logical, given that the leader of the United States has quite a few years under his belt,” the agency wrote.
Even before the summit, such messaging appeared to have had an effect: Some Russians interviewed by Current Time in Moscow cited Biden’s age, five years over Russians’ average life expectancy, as the reason why they did not expect he could meet any of their expectations.
Biden declining a joint press conference with Putin gave the Kremlin another PR point, according to Dubnov. Citing Fox and CNN comments, Channel One emphasized how Biden had chosen reporters from a list, while Putin had supposedly answered questions on the spur of the moment.
Meanwhile, the Sputnik news agency seized on a “visibly agitated” Biden’s curt rebuff to CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins after she asked him why he was “so confident” that Putin “will change his behavior.” This coverage has not included the president’s later apology.
Yet while Putin may have “scored a goal” for now, posited Oreshkin, the U.S. president also did not “concede” a goal to him.
Biden termed the talks “good, positive,” but emphasized that “This is not a kumbaya moment.” The U.S. commitment to human and civil rights was made plain, he claimed.
Putin was warned that Navalny’s death in prison would prove “destructive” for Russia, and that the U.S. would continue to press human rights issues. He also pressed for a resolution of Moscow's "foreign agent" dispute with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of which Current Time is part.
The U.S. leader claimed he emphasized his country’s “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and implied to Putin that any Russia-based cyberattacks can be answered in kind.
Putin, whose press conference preceded Biden's, denied the allegations of rights abuses, stressed his resolve to work with the U.S. to protect the world from what Biden termed an "accidental" war, and emphasized that he had found the two men's meeting "constructive."
But, ultimately, whether Biden can also consider the summit a win depends purely on his PR, Dubnov stressed.
“The world today is such that the presentation about the summit is much more important than the summit itself ...” he said.