AMAC Exclusive By Daniel Roman
Joe Biden was so desperate for the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva this week that he apparently made a series of major concessions to pave the way—from lifting sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline to effectively giving Russia a pass on the flagrant kidnapping of a journalist from a commercial jet passing through Belarussian airspace.
But if Biden was hoping to boost his polling numbers with a high-profile foreign policy success overseas, that is not what those concessions bought him with Putin this week. When it comes to image, preparation, and even basic understanding of geopolitics, there was no contest between the two leaders. It is hard to imagine a more humiliating defeat for the United States than that which Putin inflicted on Biden in Geneva.
This defeat may not be the very worst of all time in terms of geopolitics. It would be hard to top the Yalta Conference between FDR, Churchill and Stalin in that respect, where Churchill and FDR emerged with some scribblings on a napkin and Stalin with Eastern Europe. But Stalin at least allowed the Western leaders the illusion of success. This week, not only did Putin concede nothing on the key questions of cybersecurity, Americans held captive in Russia, and the Ukraine. He openly flaunted his triumph over the American president.
That mockery came in the form of a series of post-summit dueling press conferences that themselves represented a diplomatic catastrophe for the United States in terms of conception, planning, and execution. For one thing, they never should have happened in the first place. Traditionally, summits between leaders are followed by a joint press conference where the two leaders stand side-by-side taking alternating questions from the media. That was how things worked when Bill Clinton met with Boris Yeltsin, a man whose decrepitude was as infamous as his intoxication, and who famously fell off a stage during a campaign event. It was how it worked with George Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump with Putin and Medvedev. It was how Putin and the Russians assumed it would work with Joe Biden.
Instead, the Biden team threw a spanner into the works. They refused to hold a joint press conference with Putin. Why precisely they made this decision is something of a mystery. That is not because their stated reasons are nonsensical—that goes without saying—but that the Administration itself could not seem to agree on a reason. Initially the White House suggested it would allow Putin a “platform” only for Biden himself to walk-back that reasoning suggesting that it would be a “diversion” and create an environment of competition between himself and Putin. Left unstated may have been fears as to how Biden would have performed. Putin, for all of his mixed history with the concept of the media, is a fan of the give-and-take of press conferences, famously hosting an annual press conference which in 2020 ran for over four hours. Whatever happens to those who ask hostile questions after they leave the room, Putin has never shied away from facing them in person.
Joe Biden on the other hand ran a Presidential campaign almost entirely shielded from the press. He avoided unscripted events, and even dodged the second presidential debate. On occasions where he has performed unscripted, he has shown an unfortunate tendency to go off script, and to wander.
Yet if the Biden camp wished to avoid the post-summit press conferences becoming a competitive exercise they failed miserably. Rather than a joint press conference, the Biden camp agreed to two sequential ones, and then foolishly allowed Putin to go first. Putin, a man who enjoys the spectacle of press conferences, now was guaranteed a captive audience in the press corps who were obligated to remain until Biden came out, and an actual captive in the form of the President of the United States who was forced to literally remain in a room until Putin chose to stop speaking. And unsurprisingly, Putin made him wait. Rather than the 25-30 minutes agreed upon, Putin spoke for almost an hour.
What he spoke on seemed designed to mock the absent Biden, who, by refusing a joint appearance, had lost any chance to challenge Putin’s claims.
In response to a question about whether Russia would cease cyberwarfare, Putin stated that the leading perpetrators of cybercrime were the United States, followed by Canada, with Russia not even in the top ten. In effect, it was a “No,” denying that Russia was even involved.
When asked about military exercises around the Ukraine, Putin insisted Russia had the right to conduct exercises on its own territory, again denying that Biden even had the right to make any demands, much less that Putin had ever contemplated agreeing to them.
Asked about crackdowns on domestic opponents, Putin blamed the United States Senate for having passed legislation declaring Russia an “enemy,” rhetorically asking what that made political groups in Russia which took money from the United States?
As for cooperation on warrants for cybercriminals, Putin noted that Russia had issued extradition requests for 42 individuals in the United States, overwhelmingly opposition activists, and the US had acted on none.
For 55 minutes then, Putin revealed that Biden had received absolutely nothing in the summit. He did so not by explicitly saying he had rejected Biden’s demands, but by arguing that none of the issues Biden had raised were even legitimate. Either they did not exist, as with Russian cyberwarfare, or they were entirely matters of internal affairs. As such, according to Putin, there was nothing to disagree about in terms of issues, since he had explained to Biden that none of the issues Biden wanted to talk about in fact existed. The answer then to all of Biden’s objectives in the summit came through loud and clear from an often-smirking, sometimes laughing Putin. In effect, he declared, “Not now, and not ever.”
If Putin’s press conference was a diplomatic roasting of the United States and its President, Biden’s press conference was a disaster. A visibly irritated Biden stumbled onto stage, spending the first 11 minutes reading from a teleprompter, before attempting a clearly rushed response to Putin. It was unfortunate, rambling, and at one point Biden confused Putin with Donald Trump. After 20 minutes Biden attempted to take questions, before complaining first that he was supposed to have a list of who to call-on which he seemed to have misplaced, and then exploding at Kaitlin Collins of CNN, which was the equivalent of Putin exploding at Russia Today.
When Collins asked why he was so confident Putin would change his behavior, Biden responded “I’m not confident I’m going to change his behavior. What the hell? What do you do all the time?” before following up with “If you don’t understand that, you are in the wrong business.” Biden clearly intended to tell the reporter off for challenging him. The bane of the free press in Russia had stood up to questions, half from Western journalists, for 55 minutes. Biden barely lasted 25, of which more than half was scripted, before exploding at the network that gives him fawning coverage 24 hours a day.
We do not know the full content of the Biden-Putin conversations, but the dueling press conferences told us what did not happen. Biden provided some hints that things may have gone even worse than implied by Putin’s victory lap. Biden mentioned turning over to the Russian President a list of 16 vital infrastructure targets within the United States which he suggested should be off limits to cyberattacks, a concession he expected attacks to continue, and the equivalent of a “please aim your future efforts here” sign. It may not be a coincidence that dozens of Airlines and global financial institutions found their websites mysteriously down upon Biden’s return to the United States.
Substantively, Joe Biden and the United States received nothing at Geneva. Geopolitically, and for that matter, on the world stage, the United States was humiliated. In fact, it is hard to think of any American President who has ever been treated in this manner since the founding of the country. Whether Biden could have gotten satisfaction from Putin is an open question. But the humiliation was entirely self-inflicted. And the United States is paying the price.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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